Archive for March, 2015

Earth hour: millions will switch off lights around the world for climate action

March 27th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Earth hour: millions will switch off lights around the world for climate action” was written by Karl Mathiesen, for theguardian.com on Friday 27th March 2015 09.37 UTC

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has said hundreds of millions of Earth hour participants around the world will demand a strong global climate agreement by switching off their lights for an hour on Saturday night.

Many of the world’s brightest lights will go dark at 8:30pm (GMT) as Earth hour marks its ninth year. In a video address, Ban said the symbolic switching-off held more significance than ever, just nine months before a pivotal UN meeting on the climate crisis in Paris.

“Climate change is a people problem. People cause climate change and people suffer from climate change. People can also solve climate change. This December in Paris, the United Nations is bringing nations together to agree a new, universal and meaningful climate agreement. It will be the culmination of a year of action on sustainable development,” said Ban.

More than 7,000 cities in 172 countries are expected to take part in the world’s largest ever demonstration, which has grown from a single World Wildlife Fund (WWF) event in Sydney in 2007.

“Earth Hour shows what is possible when we unite in support of a cause: no individual action is too small, no collective vision is too big. This is the time to use your power,” said Ban.

Organisers said this year’s demonstration would be the biggest yet. Sudhanshu Sarronwala, chair of Earth Hour global said: “Climate change is not just the issue of the hour, it’s the issue of our generation. The lights may go out for one hour, but the actions of millions throughout the year will inspire the solutions required to change climate change.”

Some the world’s most famous landmarks will turn their lights out. The UN building in New York will join London’s Houses of Parliament, Rio de Janeiro’s Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In Bulgaria a giant Danube sturgeon fish will be drawn in fire in the capital, Sofia. Millions of other, more humble, participants will take part by simply switching from electricity to candlelight for an hour.

Colin Butfield, director of campaigns at WWF-UK said the mass participation was a demand for climate action and politicians should take heed. “The fact that such a huge number of people are taking part in Earth Hour across the world and are using it as a moment to inspire action on sustainability in their own communities sends a really clear message that the public is ready to tackle climate change – we now need politicians to show the same drive,” he said.

Britain’s energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, who has been heavily involved in the climate negotiations at the UN, called for a response to climate change that was commensurate with its threat. “It’s time for everyone to recognise that climate change will touch just about everything we do and everything we care about. Earth Hour is an excellent opportunity for millions of people across the world to take one simple step to show they’re serious about backing action on climate change,” said Davey.

Joy Dominguez
Joy Dominguez, 11, studies under a solar lamp.

Ban said the focus on climate change should not distract from Earth Hour’s other key mission: introducing clean energy to the most remote and impoverished communities on Earth. “By turning out the lights we also highlight that more than a billion people lack access to electricity. Their future wellbeing requires access to clean, affordable energy,” he said.

In 2014 Earth Hour used a crowdfunding platform to raise money and deliver thousands of fuel-efficient stoves to families in Madagascar and solar kits to remote villages in Uganda. The organisation also supplied islands in the Philippines with solar power for the first time and raised money for victims of Typhoon Haiyan.

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Don’t brand your business with the label ‘ethical’

March 26th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Don’t brand your business with the label ‘ethical'” was written by Oliver Balch, for theguardian.com on Thursday 26th March 2015 09.30 UTC

Handmade cosmetics retailer Lush is proud of the fact it does zero advertising. It’s also pretty chuffed about its ethics. It has every right to be, having won an Observer Ethical Award last year. The Dorset-based brand shuns animal testing, caps executive pay, donates to anti-fracking groups, pays its African suppliers a fair price and much else besides.

Would you know though? Not from its minimal packaging, that’s for sure. Lush shuns the word “ethical” and its synonyms (think “eco”, “sustainable”, “responsible”, “good” and so on). Instead, its marketing is all about laying its products bare. That way, says Hilary Jones, the company’s ethics director, there’s “an obvious dialogue that begs to be had between us and our customers”.

On the face of it, Lush appears to be missing a trick. All the evidence suggests that consumers are increasingly concerned about the ethics behind what they buy. The latest Trust Barometer from public relations firm Edelman places ethics and integrity top of 16 specific categories that engender the public trust.

Just because consumers want their brands to be ethical, however, doesn’t mean they want brands banging on about it non-stop. No one much likes the person who boasts relentlessly about their charity work or moral good conduct. When brands do it, the effect is just the same.

Explicit ethical branding has other negative connotations too. First, there’s the quality question: will this eco-branded washing powder get my clothes whiter than white? Some shoppers will doubt it. Similarly, on price, there’s a widespread (and usually justified) perception that “ethical” means expensive. A niche shopper may pay a premium for their principles, but the majority will not.

“In practice, most consumers assess their needs first, then how much they can afford to get those needs met,” says Brian Ahearne, director at London-based public relations agency Parker, Wayne & Kent. “Sometimes ethics will come into the mix, but that’s pretty rare.”

It’s not just consumers who are wary about ethical branding. The branding people are too. The fear is that by boasting about their ethics, brands will be setting themselves up for a fall. Take the Co-operative Bank, says Ahearne. For a long time it was the ethical poster-child, but news of its financial woes and drug-taking management were met with an eviscerating, almost gleeful backlash.

“As I always tell my clients, there’s only six inches between a slap on the back and a kick up the arse,” says Ahearne. Or, to put it another way, if you put your head above the parapet expect someone to take a pot shot.

Perhaps finding a less toxic term than “ethical” is the answer? Giles Gibbons, co-founder of specialist communications firm Good Business, is cautious about name games. Terms that resonate with ethical shoppers rarely do so with mainstream consumers. “Fair trade” represents a rare example, he suggests, but even that carries a “worthy” (read, boring) image for some.

Actions, not words

For Gibbons, words are not the most important factor; actions are what count. “Too many brands are trying to get the green or ethical label, rather than genuinely being a good business and getting the benefit from that,” he says.

He admits that most marketing professionals gulp at this message. Branding is their home turf, not “being” – but there’s no way round it. If ethical marketing is going to work, the ethics have to come first and the marketing second. Therein lies authenticity. Anything else smells, well, fishy.

Cheryl Giovannoni, chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather, concurs. Take Starbucks, she says. The Seattle coffee chain has umpteen certificates to say it’s sustainable. So does she believe it when it claims to source its beans ethically? “Not when I question whether they pay the right amount of tax in the UK,” she argues.

That doesn’t mean brands should keep schtum. No one is a saint – not even Lush. What the public expects isn’t ethical perfection; it’s clarity on what a brand stands for, and transparency on how its ethics are staking up.

Sarah Pinch, president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, gives the example of Devon-based food box delivery brand Riverford. The company grew so quickly that it had to go back on an initial pledge to buy only UK-grown produce, she says. Now it imports veg from France in spring, although it commits to zero airfreight.

For Pinch, such transparency only adds to her trust in the brand – it doesn’t detract from it: “Consumers and the media are now much more adept at testing ethical claims, so the need for greater accountability and openness is absolutely vital. PR professionals have a responsibility to tell their clients: we can’t say Produce A is 100% ethical. What we can say is that we are taking every effort to meet this and this ethical standard and here’s the proof.”

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Climate change is overwhelming – so should we focus on small steps?

March 25th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Climate change is overwhelming – so should we focus on small steps?” was written by Sarah LaBrecque, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 25th March 2015 09.42 UTC

The challenges of our time can feel overwhelming: climate change, economic inequality, water scarcity – even the most passionate campaigner might want to pull the covers over and look away. So can single-issue campaigns such as Buy Nothing New Month or Meat Free Week help us divide important causes into manageable chunks? Or do they only distract?

Peter Burr, CEO of Meat Free Week

Peter Burr
Peter Burr.

Single-issue campaigns are most effective when we have an emotional connection linking us directly to the cause – an aunt dying of bowel cancer; work with mistreated animals; or a concern for the world we’re leaving to our children. Emotional connections compel us to support a cause because we hope to prevent others from enduring the same suffering.

We’re thirsty for knowledge, so any campaign that gets a conversation started will have an impact . Even if you take away only a single aspect of the message that positively influences your life, that’s got to be a good thing.

I have no doubt “wear out” means many people will not participate in a campaign for a second year. But with each year, campaigns attract a significant new audience. That coupled with the residual memory of previous years’ campaigns, will start to return greater numbers. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. We’re hoping to achieve that result with Meat Free Week – it’s hard to change habits of a lifetime, but they said that about cigarettes.

Tom Crompton, director of Common Cause Foundation

Tom Crompton
Tom Crompton.

Stepping up to the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss is not easy. Embracing small changes in our everyday lives is one important response – but let’s not kid ourselves that this can be remotely sufficient. In the words of David McKay, chief scientific adviser to the department of energy and climate change in the UK, “Don’t be distracted by the myth that ‘every little helps’. If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little.”

Anyone concerned about climate change could ask: How am I encouraging and supporting others to become more vocal in expressing concern – for example, by joining campaigns or public demonstrations, or making far-reaching changes in the way that they live?

Building this deeper concern need not require work on climate change at all. Work on a wide range of issues can be effective, even where there is no mention of anything obviously related to the environment. What’s needed is a re-connection with the things people say are most important to them: friends and family, our communities, beautiful places, the poor or disadvantaged, freedom and creativity.

Conversely, urging people to reuse their shopping bags, or to switch the TV off standby, can undermine this more important work. Unless they invite re-connection with these deeper values, behaviour-change campaigns can be counter-productive if they don’t invite reconnection with deeper values, and can leave people less inclined to respond in more significant ways.

David Willans, director of Will & Progress

David Willans
David Willans.

Single-issue campaigning is effective if you’re looking for change on a specific issue. It can be incredibly effective for behaviour change if people are aware of a problem, but don’t know what to do about it, as campaigns such as Jamie’s Chicken Run and Hugh’s Fish Fight demonstrate. Traditionally, this type of campaign is akin to taking market share from a competitor. You’re taking people from one behaviour to another. There are mountains of evidence out there demonstrating how to do it (pdf).

If someone’s making a change out of a sense of obligation, as soon as that obligation disappears, all things being equal, so does the change. But thankfully all things are never equal. If the change becomes part of someone’s sense of identity, or gives them a cocktail of personal, social and/or economic benefit that outweighs the effort, there’s a good chance it will last.

Something is effective if it delivers a desired result. If the objective of holistic environmental campaigns is holistic change, which history shows us is never the work of one action, how can you ever decide whether it’s effective? There are two schools of thought about how to drive change at this level. One is intrinsically led change, where we focus on connecting with universally held values and changing societal narratives. The idea is that over time people will shift from one way of living to another. The other is extrinsically led change, where we focus on specifics such as audiences, behaviours and benefits. The idea is that specific changes build up to create more holistic change.

The evidence shows both create positive change. Therefore we need to be doing more and sharing our insights to get better at it. Pitting one against the other is playing the kind of point-scoring game you hear at Prime Minister’s Questions. It’s self-serving and self-defeating and actively puts people off, preventing learning and ultimately wasting precious time.

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The way we live now: the rise of the energy-producing home

March 20th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The way we live now: the rise of the energy-producing home” was written by Elisabeth Braw, for theguardian.com on Monday 16th March 2015 13.49 UTC

Imagine living in a house that contributed to society: a house that produced energy, while consuming none itself. Well, imagine no more. After perfecting the “passivhaus”, which consumes minimal energy, engineers and architects have developed the energy positive house.

Generating energy is one thing, building a house is another. But with its plant-decorated walls and enormous double-glazed windows, the ArchiBlox Positive House, introduced in Melbourne’s City Square last month, looks elegant and modernist. “The trick is to make the sustainable and performance products visually pleasing while also practical,” reports David Martin, construction director of the ArchiBlox Positive House – the world’s first pre-fab energy positive house.

Rooftop solar panels and cooling tubes generate energy and regulate the temperature, while double-glazed windows and thick walls conserve energy. The end result: surplus power.

Energy producing house diagram
How an energy-producing home works. Photograph: Snøhetta

The ArchiBlox team is not alone in successfully completing the energy positive challenge. The German city of Königsbrunn, working in collaboration with the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences and a local gas and electricity company, is finalising the cube-like Visioneum in the central square, where city officials hope its presence will inspire residents to think about their household energy consumption.

At the University of California, Berkeley, students working in collaboration with Honda have developed yet another concept, the Honda Smart Home, which looks more like a typical terraced house, but which generates surplus energy the same way as the ArchiBlox and the Visioneum: by radically conserving it while generating more than it needs though solar panels.

Students at the Delft University of Technology, meanwhile, have invented a highly innovative “skin” that can be attached to existing houses with similar results. And in Norway, architecture firm Future Built has managed to turn two ordinary office buildings into energy-generating ones, cutting their energy use by 90% through additional insulation and the use of sensors to control light and heating. Here, too, solar panels on the roof provide energy that can be sold back to the grid.

With cars and homes accounting for 44% of greenhouse gasses in United States (and similar percentages in Europe), it’s no surprise that researchers and architects are trying to find ways of making homes more energy-efficient.

“The development of smart technologies, like the Google Nest, is making energy savings more convenient for users by allowing for control over temperatures in the house while you are away from the house, and allowing temperatures to follow your daily routines”, notes Esben Alslund-Lanthén, an analyst at the Danish sustainability thinktank Sustainia.

ZEB house
The ZEB house. Photograph: EVE

Kristian Edwards says building a plus-house is technically straightforward. “We calculated how many square meters of solar panels we needed and optimised the angle of the roof to get maximum solar yield,” he reports. “But plus-houses are also about minimising energy consumption, so we used as much recycled material as possible, such as whole bricks from a barn nearby.” With its box-like wooden top floor slanted over the lower floor for maximum sun exposure, Snøhetta’s experiment – the ZEB Multi-Comfort House, located in the Norwegian city of Larvik – boasts a visually striking appearance.

There’s just one thing: the cost. “Cost is always a factor when building houses that are taking advantage of the newest technology”, notes Alslund-Lanthén. “Plus-houses will likely remain more expensive than conventional houses, but on the other hand the owners will benefit from lower utility bills throughout the lifetime of the house, and in many cases from added benefits such as a better indoor climate due to improved ventilation, more daylight and better insulation.”

But Edwards, an architect at the Snøhetta architechture firm in Oslo, argues that plus-houses don’t have to be expensive, noting that a ZEB-style house may only cost 25% more to build than a similar, newly-designed home. The dropping cost of photovoltaic cells will also aid the advance of plus-houses.

Either way, utility companies are currently developing new payment models that will allow home owners to pay back the cost of the new technologies through energy savings. Other plus-house owners may opt to sell their surplus energy to the grid. At the ZEB house, in turn, surplus energy will power the electric car that future residents may own.

What’s life in a plus-house like? Norwegian families have volunteered to test the ZEB house for three months each and will report their findings to Edwards and his Snøhetta colleagues. And David Martin is about to find out for himself, having signed up to live in his ArchiBlox construction with his young family for the next 24 months.

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Fossil fuels are way more expensive than you think

March 19th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Fossil fuels are way more expensive than you think” was written by Dana Nuccitelli, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 18th March 2015 13.00 UTC

A new paper published in Climatic Change estimates that when we account for the pollution costs associated with our energy sources, gasoline costs an extra .80 per gallon, diesel an additional .80 per gallon, coal a further 24 cents per kilowatt-hour, and natural gas another 11 cents per kilowatt-hour that we don’t see in our fuel or energy bills.

Levelized generation costs for new US electricity generation and environmental damages by fuel type. Source: Climatic Change, Shindell (2015)
Levelized generation costs for new US electricity generation and environmental damages by fuel type. Source: Climatic Change, Shindell (2015).

The study was done by Drew Shindell, formerly of Nasa, now professor of climate sciences at Duke University, and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Panel to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. Shindell recently published research noting that aerosols and ozone have a bigger effect on the climate in the northern hemisphere, where humans produce more of those pollutants.

That research led Shindell to question current estimates of the true costs of our energy sources. Much research has gone into estimating the social cost of carbon, which attempts to account for the additional costs from burning fossil fuels via the climate damages their carbon pollution causes. However, this research doesn’t account for the costs associated with other air pollutants released during fossil fuel combustion.

For example, depending on how much more we value a dollar today than in the future (a factor known as ‘discount rate’), Shindell estimates carbon pollution costs us per ton of carbon dioxide emitted in climate damages, and another in additional climate-health impacts like malnutrition that aren’t normally accounted for.

But Shindell also estimates that carbon emissions are relatively cheap compared to other fossil fuel air pollutants. For example, sulfur dioxide costs ,000 per ton, and nitrous oxides ,000 per ton! However, less of these other pollutants are released into the atmosphere during modern fossil fuel combustion.

Electric Cars Cheaper than Gasoline Powered

For an average American car (26 miles per gallon), Shindell estimates that the air pollution emissions altogether cost us 00 in damages per year. In comparison, emissions from energy to power an electric Nissan Leaf would cost us 0 even if purely powered by coal, and 0 if fueled by electricity supplied entirely from natural gas. These costs would become negligible if the electricity came from renewable or nuclear power. Electric vehicles (EVs) are clearly the winners in this cost comparison.

Hence environmental damages are reduced substantially even if an EV is powered from coal-fired electricity, although they are much lower for other electricity sources

The Needed Energy Transition May Have Begun in 2014

The key conclusion from Shindell’s study is that fossil fuels only seem cheap because their market prices don’t reflect their true costs. In reality they are remarkably expensive for society, but taxpayers pick up most of those costs via climate damages and other health effects. Those who argue that we need to continue relying on fossil fuels – like former popular science writer Matt Ridley – just aren’t accounting for the costs of pollution.

These air pollution costs are effectively a massive subsidy, and Shindell likely underestimated their size. When I asked Shindell if he had accounted for recent research by Moore & Diaz showing that climate change slows economic growth, he said,

I saw the Moore and Diaz paper, which was quite interesting, but after my paper had already been accepted so it didn’t make it in there. Indeed if growth is slowed by climate change as in their study, the associated social costs could be much larger … But in general, this is only one of several possible reasons that my values are likely conservative as I’ve left out many things that I didn’t know how to put a price on. That includes the influence of pollution on cognitive function decline, on IQ, and on mental health, the influence of energy on freshwater resources, on national security (e.g. military spending related to oil/gas supplies), the impact of climate change on biodiversity, the effects of ocean acidification, etc.

This research shows that we need to transition away from fossil fuels not just to mitigate the risks associated with climate change, but to reduce the economic and health impacts of air pollution in general. Fortunately there was some good news this week suggesting that we may be on our way to making this transition. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported,

global emissions of carbon dioxide from the energy sector stalled in 2014, marking the first time in 40 years in which there was a halt or reduction in emissions of the greenhouse gas that was not tied to an economic downturn … In the 40 years in which the IEA has been collecting data on carbon dioxide emissions, there have only been three times in which emissions have stood still or fallen compared to the previous year, and all were associated with global economic weakness: the early 1980’s; 1992 and 2009. In 2014, however, the global economy expanded by 3%.

When we examine the data, 2014 indeed stands out. With 3% GDP growth, it’s the first year on record that energy-related CO2 emissions didn’t increase and GDP nevertheless grew by more than 2%.

Annual percent GDP growth (data from World Bank) and annual percent CO2 growth from energy (data from IEA).  Created by Dana Nuccitelli.
Annual percent GDP growth (data from World Bank) and annual percent CO2 growth from energy (data from IEA). Created by Dana Nuccitelli.

The IEA reports that the stagnation in carbon pollution stemmed from a transition away from fossil fuels rather than a drop in energy use due to poor economic conditions, as had been the case in previous years where CO2 emissions didn’t grow.

The IEA attributes the halt in emissions growth to changing patterns of energy consumption in China and OECD countries. In China, 2014 saw greater generation of electricity from renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind, and less burning of coal. In OECD economies, recent efforts to promote more sustainable growth – including greater energy efficiency and more renewable energy – are producing the desired effect of decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s important not to over-interpret a single data point, but it’s a promising sign that carbon pollution emissions didn’t grow in 2014 while the global economy did. This is the sort of “decoupling” of GDP and CO2 that needs to happen for a successful transition away from fossil fuels. Signs that we may have reached peak coal production are also encouraging.

As Shindell’s research shows, it’s an important transition for us to make in order to preserve a livable climate and a healthy economy.

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The argument for divesting from fossil fuels is becoming overwhelming

March 17th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The argument for divesting from fossil fuels is becoming overwhelming” was written by Alan Rusbridger, for theguardian.com on Monday 16th March 2015 13.06 UTC

The world has much more coal, oil and gas in the ground than it can safely burn. That much is physics.

Anyone studying the question with an open mind will almost certainly come to a similar conclusion: if we and our children are to have a reasonable chance of living stable and secure lives 30 or so years from now, according to one recent study 80% of the known coal reserves will have to stay underground, along with half the gas and a third of the oil reserves.

If only science were enough.

If not science, then politics? MPs, presidents, prime ministers and members of congress are always telling us (often suggesting a surrender of civil liberties in return) that their first duty is the protection of the public.

But politics sometimes struggles with physics. Science is, at its best, long term and gives the best possible projection of future risk. Which is not always how politics works, even when it comes to our security. Politicians prefer certainty and find it difficult to make serious prudent planning on high probabilities.

Climate change petition

On climate change, the public clamour is in inverse proportion to the enormity of the long-term threat. If only it were the other way round. And so, year after year, the people who represent us around the UN negotiating tables have moved inches, not miles.

When, as Guardian colleagues, we first started discussing this climate change series, there were advocates for focusing the main attention on governments. States own much of the fossil fuels that can never be allowed to be dug up. Only states, it was argued, can forge the treaties that count. In the end the politicians will have to save us through regulation – either by limiting the amount of stuff that is extracted, or else by taxing, pricing and limiting the carbon that’s burned.

If journalism has so far failed to animate the public to exert sufficient pressure on politics through reporting and analysis, it seemed doubtful whether many people would be motivated by the idea of campaigning for a paragraph to be inserted into the negotiating text at the UN climate talks in Paris this December. So we turned to an area where campaigners have recently begun to have marked successes: divestment.

There are two arguments in favour of moving money out of the biggest and most aggressive fossil fuel companies – one moral, the other financial.

The moral crusaders – among them Archbishop Desmond Tutu – see divestment from fossil fuels in much the same light as earlier campaigners saw the push to pull money out of tobacco, arms, apartheid South Africa – or even slavery. Most fossil fuel companies, they argue, have little concern for future generations. Of course, the companies are run by sentient men and women with children and grandchildren of their own. But the market pressures and fiduciary duties involved in running public companies compel behaviour that is overwhelmingly driven by short-term returns.

So – the argument goes – the directors will meanwhile carry on business as usual, no matter how incredible it may seem that they will be allowed to dig up all the climate-warming assets they own. And, by and large – and discounting recent drops in the price of oil – they continue to be reasonably good short-term businesses, benefiting from enormous subsidies as they search for even more reserves that can never be used.

What is fossil fuel divestment and why does it matter?

The pragmatists argue the case on different grounds. It is simply this: that finance will eventually have to surrender to physics.

If – eventually – the companies cannot, for the sake of the human race, be allowed to extract a great many of the assets they own, then many of those assets will in time become valueless. So people with other kinds of fiduciary duty – people, say, managing endowments, pension funds and investment portfolios – will want to get their money out of these companies before the bubble bursts.

Alan Rusbridger in London, for the launch of the Guardian's climate change campaign.
Alan Rusbridger in London, for the launch of the Guardian’s climate change campaign. Photograph: David Levene

Of course, the financial risk comes not simply from the threat of regulation, but could also be hastened by the march of alternative clean energy. Global investment in clean energy jumped 16% in 2014 to £205bn, but because of the rapid drop in the price of that energy (the cost of solar has dropped by two-thirds in 6 years), the money invested last year bought almost double the amount of electricity capacity as in 2011.

So there’s a risk calculation to be done by anyone invested in fossil fuels – which, one way or another, is probably most of us. Get out too early and you might forgo the reasonable returns based on current performance and the book value of the assets that are notionally exploitable.

But what of the risk of being a late exiter? Do you wait and judge when the politicians could finally summon the will to start making regulatory and market interventions … and then get out? And at the same time as everyone else is trying to do the same?

This is why the divestment movement has changed from being a fringe campaign to something every responsible fund manager can no longer ignore. How could they, when even the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has warned that the “vast majority of reserves are unburnable” and the bank itself is conducting an inquiry into the risk that inflated fossil fuel assets pose to the stability of the financial system?

When the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, urges: “Be the first mover. Use smart due diligence. Rethink what fiduciary responsibility means in this changing world. It’s simple self-interest. Every company, investor and bank that screens new and existing investments for climate risk is simply being pragmatic”?

When the Bank of England’s deputy head of supervision for banks and insurance companies, Paul Fisher, warns, as he did this month: “As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit”?

Or listen to Hank Paulson, no bleeding liberal, but secretary of the Treasury under Bush and former CEO of Goldman Sachs: “Each of us must recognise that the risks are personal. We’ve seen and felt the costs of underestimating the financial bubble. Let’s not ignore the climate bubble.”

President Obama puts it most pithily: “We’re not going to be able to burn it all.”

So the argument for a campaign to divest from the world’s most polluting companies is becoming an overwhelming one, on both moral and pragmatic grounds. But the divestment movement is sometimes misunderstood. The intention is not to bankrupt the companies, nor to promote overnight withdrawal from fossil fuels – that would not be possible or desirable.

Divestment serves to delegitimise the business models of companies that are using investors’ money to search for yet more coal, oil and gas that can’t safely be burned. It is a small but crucial step in the economic transition away from a global economy run on fossil fuels.

The usual rule of newspaper campaigns is that you don’t start one unless you know you’re going to win it. This one will almost certainly be won in time: the physics is unarguable. But we are launching our campaign today in the firm belief that it will force the issue now into the boardrooms and inboxes of people who have billions of dollars at their disposal.

It’s clear, from our researches over the past few weeks, that many company directors and fund managers have had a nagging feeling that this is something coming up the agenda that – one day – they will have to think about. As the Guardian’s campaign mounts, we hope they will appreciate that there is some urgency about the choices they make.

Who will take the lead? Some huge endowments and investment funds have already announced that they will be decarbonising their portfolios, exiting fossil fuels altogether and/or investing in cleaner alternatives.

They include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; Stanford, Glasgow and Australian National Universities; the British Medical Association; Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global, which has sold off 32 coal companies on climate and environmental grounds; AP4, the giant Swedish pension fund; and many other faith groups, local councils and asset managers. The World Council of Churches has committed not to invest.

Our own campaign will give readers the information they need to make their own investment decisions and to apply pressure on the workplaces, unions, schools, colleges, churches, NGOs, pension advisers and charities in their lives. But we also want to try to change minds at one or two institutions that have demonstrated inspiring thought leadership in other spheres of life.

Professor Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust.
Professor Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust. Photograph: James Drew Turner/Guardian

The Wellcome Trust handles a portfolio of more than £18bn and invests around £700m a year in science, the humanities, social science education and medical research. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has an endowment of .5bn. Last year it gave away .9bn in grants towards health and sustainable development.

In 2014 the Wellcome Trust had £564m invested in Shell, BP, Schlumberger, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton alone. The Gates Foundation has a financial stake of over bn in fossil fuel companies.

Bill and Melinda Gates.
Bill and Melinda Gates. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

By most standards, these are huge sums of money, helping to fund the extraction of unusable oil gas and coal on a massive scale. But, as a proportion of the foundations’ own endowments, they are relatively small – just a few percent for the fossil fuel investments we know about. So they could, we think, be divested without damaging overall returns. Indeed, we think they could achieve higher and, over time, safer returns by putting their money into other investments with real opportunities for growth in a world tackling climate change

Because both foundations are a) so progressive in their aims and actions and b) have human health and science at the heart of everything they do, we hope they, of all institutions, will see the force of the call for them to move their money out of a sector whose actions, if unchecked, could cause the most devastating harm to the health of billions. A landmark report by the Lancet and University College London concluded in 2009: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”

The ask of them is, we think, both modest and simple. We understand that fund managers do not like to make sudden changes to their portfolios. So we ask that the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust commit now to divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years. And that they immediately freeze any new investment in the same companies.

We will, of course, suggest that the Guardian Media Group does the same, and keeps you informed about its own deliberations and decisions.

Please sign, retweet and generally spread news about the petition. In everything we say to these foundations, we will emphasise that we come in admiration for what they have done, and continue to do for human health and wellbeing. They aren’t the “bad guys”. But they could certainly show themselves to be the good guys in this matter of life and death.

Petition sign-up

One final thing. This campaign is going to be backed up by much reporting and analysis. We would be very pleased to hear from anyone working in the fossil fuel industries at a senior level, either currently or recently. We are interested, for instance, to learn about internal discussions and papers about the state of knowledge and debate about the environmental harm caused by the extractive industries. You can email me confidentially at alan.rusbridger@theguardian.com; see my PGP key on @arusbridger on Twitter; or use the Guardian’s encrypted securedrop platform, which enables anyone to send us documents without being traced.

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Shale gas should be at centre of next government’s energy policy – Tim Yeo

March 13th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Shale gas should be at centre of next government’s energy policy – Tim Yeo” was written by Fiona Harvey, for theguardian.com on Thursday 12th March 2015 06.01 UTC

Shale gas exploration can be environmentally sound, and should be the centrepiece of the next government’s energy policy, the Conservative’s most senior green-leaning MP has urged.

Tim Yeo, the Tory former minister, and chairman of parliament’s energy and climate committee, said the time had come to make the “green” case in favour of fracking, and that the incoming government after the general election must seize on the technology for the good of the UK’s environment and economy.

“There is an opportunity now, and it might not exist in a few years [when other European countries have developed fracking],” he told the Guardian. “People who think fracking is an environmental problem are mistaken.”

He said that the regulations governing fracking in this country were sound, and that related problems such as tremors were very small, and there would be no danger to the water supply here, as there has been in some places in the US. “Once people see that horizontal drilling is not causing earthquakes or poisoning the water they will be satisfied,” he said.

While warning that shale gas would not be the “transformational” industry it has been in the US, where the widespread exploitation of fracking technology has sent gas and oil prices tumbling, Yeo said it would be cheaper for the UK and have less impact on the climate than importing gas.

Fracking involves blasting water, sand and chemicals at dense rock to release tiny bubbles of gas trapped within, but the technology has been slow to be adopted in the UK after a series of hitches in the first targeted sites.

At the general election, Yeo will leave parliament after 32 years, having been de-selected by his constituency party, apparently for spending more time on national than local issues. A former environment minister and shadow environment secretary, he is one of the longest-standing and most influential champions of green issues among the ranks of Tory MPs, and chairs the influential parliamentary cross-party select committee on energy and climate change.

He makes his last major speech on energy and the environment on Thursday, at a conference that will highlight some of the committee’s progress on making policy recommendations in the current parliament.

He has chosen to make the green case for shale gas as his parting shot, because he believes the coalition has been too timid in persuading the public of the value of shale. Yeo has no current financial interest in shale and does not intend to take up any such interests on leaving parliament.

He will also use Thursday’s speech to argue strongly in favour of onshore wind turbines, which he will say are a cheap and reliable form of low-carbon energy. David Cameron has vowed to end subsidies for onshore wind, despite polls showing most people are in favour of the turbines.

Yeo said that reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions would still leave the country reliant on gas for years to come, and that fulfilling heating and power needs using domestic sources of gas would be both lower in emissions and cheaper than importing liquefied natural gas from overseas.

“I yield to no one in my desire to [tackle climate change] but the fact is we will not get by without consuming a lot of gas between now and the 2030s, so better to have a domestic source than to import it,” he said. “I do not think that a single extra cubic metre of gas will be consumed in the UK because of a domestic fracking industry.”

He said many green groups were opposing fracking because of a “visceral reaction to anything involving fossil fuels”, but he said the UK could meet its commitments on carbon reduction while producing gas from shale.

He will tell the conference: “The next government must stand up to the fuzzy-headed ideological fringes that oppose fracking. The greens opposed to fracking do not have evidence on their side.”

He will add: “Too many of us take the ready availability of energy, and the prosperity it makes possible, for granted. We expect electricity and gas to be constantly available – but we won’t accept the energy infrastructure on which that availability depends.”

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Keep fossil fuels in the ground to stop climate change

March 11th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Keep fossil fuels in the ground to stop climate change” was written by George Monbiot, for The Guardian on Tuesday 10th March 2015 12.00 UTC

If you visit the website of the UN body that oversees the world’s climate negotiations, you will find dozens of pictures, taken across 20 years, of people clapping. These photos should be of interest to anthropologists and psychologists. For they show hundreds of intelligent, educated, well-paid and elegantly-dressed people wasting their lives.

The celebratory nature of the images testifies to the world of make-believe these people inhabit. They are surrounded by objectives, principles, commitments, instruments and protocols, which create a reassuring phantasm of progress while the ship on which they travel slowly founders. Leafing through these photos, I imagine I can almost hear what the delegates are saying through their expensive dentistry. “Darling you’ve re-arranged the deckchairs beautifully. It’s a breakthrough! We’ll have to invent a mechanism for holding them in place, as the deck has developed a bit of a tilt, but we’ll do that at the next conference.”

This process is futile because they have addressed the problem only from one end, and it happens to be the wrong end. They have sought to prevent climate breakdown by limiting the amount of greenhouse gases that are released; in other words, by constraining the consumption of fossil fuels. But, throughout the 23 years since the world’s governments decided to begin this process, the delegates have uttered not one coherent word about constraining production.

Compare this to any other treaty-making process. Imagine, for example, that the Biological Weapons Convention made no attempt to restrain the production or possession of weaponised smallpox and anthrax, but only to prohibit their use. How effective do you reckon it would be? (You don’t have to guess: look at the US gun laws, which prohibit the lethal use of guns but not their sale and carriage. You can see the results on the news every week.) Imagine trying to protect elephants and rhinos only by banning the purchase of their tusks and horns, without limiting killing, export or sale. Imagine trying to bring slavery to an end not by stopping the transatlantic trade, but by seeking only to discourage people from buying slaves once they had arrived in the Americas. If you want to discourage a harmful trade, you must address it at both ends: production and consumption. Of the two, production is the most important.

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The extraction of fossil fuels is a hard fact. The rules governments have developed to prevent their use are weak, inconsistent and negotiable. In other words, when coal, oil and gas are produced, they will be used. Continued production will overwhelm attempts to restrict consumption. Even if efforts to restrict consumption temporarily succeed, they are likely to be self-defeating. A reduction in demand when supply is unconstrained lowers the price, favouring carbon-intensive industry.

You can search through the UN’s website for any recognition of this issue, but you would be wasting your time. In its gushing catalogue of self-congratulation, at Kyoto, Doha, Bali, Copenhagen, Cancún, Durban, Lima and all stops en route, the phrase “fossil fuel” does not occur once. Nor do the words coal or oil. But gas: oh yes, there are plenty of mentions of gas. Not natural gas, of course, but of greenhouse gases, the sole topic of official interest.

The closest any of the 20 international conferences convened so far have come to acknowledging the problem is in the resolution adopted in Lima in December last year. It pledged “cooperation” in “the phasing down of high-carbon investments and fossil fuel subsidies”, but proposed no budget, timetable or any instrument or mechanism required to make it happen. It’s progress of a sort, I suppose, and perhaps, after just 23 years, we should be grateful.

There is nothing random about the pattern of silence that surrounds our lives. Silences occur where powerful interests are at risk of exposure. They protect these interests from democratic scrutiny. I’m not suggesting that the negotiators decided not to talk about fossil fuels, or signed a common accord to waste their lives. Far from it: they have gone to great lengths to invest their efforts with the appearance of meaning and purpose. Creating a silence requires only an instinct for avoiding conflict. It is a conditioned and unconscious reflex; part of the package of social skills that secures our survival. Don’t name the Devil for fear that you’ll summon him.

Breaking such silences requires a conscious and painful effort. I remember as if it were yesterday how I felt when I first raised this issue in the media. I had been working with a group of young activists in Wales, campaigning against opencast coal mines. Talking it over with them, it seemed so obvious, so overwhelming, that I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t on everyone’s lips. Before writing about it, I circled the topic like a dog investigating a suspicious carcass. Why, I wondered, is no one touching this? Is it toxic?

Ice sculptures in the shape of humans are placed on the steps of the music hall in Gendarmenmarkt  public square in Berlin September 2, 2009. Hosted by the German World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), 1,000 ice sculptures made by Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo were positioned on the steps in the German capital at noon, to highlight climate change in the arctic region. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz
Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo’s ice sculptures in the shape of humans are placed in public places to highlight climate change. Photograph: Tobias Schwarz / Reuters/REUTERS

You cannot solve a problem without naming it. The absence of official recognition of the role of fossil fuel production in causing climate change – blitheringly obvious as it is – permits governments to pursue directly contradictory policies. While almost all governments claim to support the aim of preventing more than 2C of global warming, they also seek to “maximise economic recovery” of their fossil fuel reserves. (Then they cross their fingers, walk three times widdershins around the office and pray that no one burns it.) But few governments go as far as the UK has gone.

In the Infrastructure Act that received royal assent last month, maximising the economic recovery of petroleum from the UK’s continental shelf became a statutory duty. Future governments are now legally bound to squeeze every possible drop out of the ground.

Timeline

The idea came from a government review conducted by Sir Ian Wood, the billionaire owner of an inherited company – the Wood Group – that provides services to the oil and gas industry. While Sir Ian says his recommendations “received overwhelming industry support”, his team interviewed no one outside either the oil business or government. It contains no sign that I can detect of any feedback from environment groups or scientists.

His review demanded government powers to enhance both the exploration of new reserves and the exploitation of existing ones. This, it insisted, “will help take us closer to the 24bn [barrel] prize potentially still to come”. The government promised to implement his recommendations in full and without delay. In fact it went some way beyond them. It is prepared to be ruthlessly interventionist when promoting climate change, but not when restraining it.

During December’s climate talks in Lima, the UK’s energy secretary, Ed Davey, did something unwise. He broke the silence. He warned that if climate change policies meant that fossil fuel reserves could no longer be exploited, pension funds could be investing in “the sub-prime assets of the future”. Echoing the Bank of England and financial analysts such as the Carbon Tracker Initiative, Davey suggested that if governments were serious about preventing climate breakdown, fossil fuel could become a stranded asset.

This provoked a furious response from the industry. The head of Oil and Gas UK Malcolm Webb wrote to express his confusion, pointing out that Davey’s statements came “at a time when you, your Department and the Treasury are putting great effort into [making] the UK North Sea more attractive to investors in oil and gas, not less. I’m intrigued to understand how such opposing viewpoints can be reconciled.” He’s not the only one. Ed Davey quickly explained that his comments were not to be taken seriously, as “I did not offer any suggestions on what investors should choose to do.”

Barack Obama has the same problem. During a television interview last year, he confessed that “We’re not going to be able to burn it all.” So why, he was asked, has his government been encouraging ever more exploration and extraction of fossil fuels? His administration has opened up marine oil exploration from Florida to Delaware – in waters that were formally off-limits. It has increased the number of leases sold for drilling on federal lands and, most incongruously, rushed through the process that might, by the end of this month, enable Shell to prospect in the highly vulnerable Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea.

Similar contradictions beset most governments with environmental pretensions. Norway, for example, intends to be “carbon neutral” by 2030. Perhaps it hopes to export its entire oil and gas output, while relying on wind farms at home. A motion put to the Norwegian parliament last year to halt new drilling because it is incompatible with Norway’s climate change policies was defeated by 95 votes to three.

Ice sculptures in the shape of humans are placed on the steps of the music hall in Gendarmenmarkt  public square in Berlin September 2, 2009. Hosted by the German World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), 1,000 ice sculptures made by Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo were positioned on the steps in the German capital at noon, to highlight climate change in the arctic region.
Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo’s ice sculptures in Berlin, September 2009. Photograph: Tobias Schwarz / Reuters/REUTERS

Obama explained that “I don’t always lead with the climate change issue because if you, right now, are worried about whether you’ve got a job or if you can pay the bills, the first thing you want to hear is how do I meet the immediate problem?”

Money is certainly a problem, but not necessarily for the reasons Obama suggested. The bigger issue is the bankrolling of politics by big oil and big coal, and the tremendous lobbying power they purchase. These companies have, in the past, financed wars to protect their position; they will not surrender the bulk of their reserves without a monumental fight. This fight would test the very limits of state power; I wonder whether our nominal democracies would survive it. Fossil fuel companies have become glutted on silence: their power has grown as a result of numberless failures to challenge and expose them. It’s no wonder that the manicured negotiators at the UN conferences, so careful never to break a nail, have spent so long avoiding the issue.

I believe there are ways of resolving this problem, ways that might recruit other powerful interests against these corporations. For example, a global auction in pollution permits would mean that governments had to regulate just a few thousand oil refineries, coal washeries, gas pipelines and cement and fertiliser factories, rather than the activities of seven billion people. It would create a fund from the sale of permits that’s likely to run into trillions: money that could be used for anything from renewable energy to healthcare. By reducing fluctuations in the supply of energy, it would deliver more predictable prices, that many businesses would welcome. Most importantly, unlike the current framework for negotiations, it could work, producing a real possibility of averting climate breakdown.

About the artist

Left to themselves, the negotiators will continue to avoid this issue until they have wasted everyone else’s lives as well as their own. They keep telling us that the conference in Paris in December is the make or break meeting (presumably they intend to unveil a radical new deckchair design). We should take them at their word, and demand that they start confronting the real problem.

With the help of George Marshall at the Climate Outreach and Information Network, I’ve drafted a paragraph of the kind that the Paris agreement should contain. It’s far from perfect, and I would love to see other people refining it. But, I hope, it’s a start:

“Scientific assessments of the carbon contained in existing fossil fuel reserves suggest that full exploitation of these reserves is incompatible with the agreed target of no more than 2C of global warming. The unrestricted extraction of these reserves undermines attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. We will start negotiating a global budget for the extraction of fossil fuels from existing reserves, as well as a date for a moratorium on the exploration and development of new reserves. In line with the quantification of the fossil carbon that can be extracted without a high chance of exceeding 2C of global warming, we will develop a timetable for annual reductions towards that budget. We will develop mechanisms for allocating production within this budget and for enforcement and monitoring.”

If something of that kind were to emerge from Paris, it will not have been a total waste of time, and the delegates would be able to congratulate themselves on a real achievement rather than yet another false one. Then, for once, they would deserve their own applause.

• Twitter: @georgemonbiot. A fully referenced version of this article can be found at Monbiot.com

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10 myths about fossil fuel divestment put to the sword

March 10th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “10 myths about fossil fuel divestment put to the sword” was written by Damian Carrington, for theguardian.com on Monday 9th March 2015 16.00 UTC

1. Divestment from fossil fuels will result in the end of modern civilisation

It is true that most of today’s energy, and many useful things such as plastics and fertilisers, come from fossil fuels. But the divestment campaign is not arguing for an end of all fossil fuel use starting tomorrow, with everyone heading back to caves to light a campfire. Instead it is arguing that the burning of fossil fuels at increasing rates is driving global warming, which is the actual threat to modern civilisation. Despite already having at least three times more proven reserves than the world’s governments agree can be safely burned, fossil fuel companies are spending huge sums exploring for more. Looked at in that way, pulling investments from companies committed to throwing more fuel on the climate change fire makes sense.

2. We all use fossil fuels everyday, so divestment is hypocritical

Again, no-one is arguing for an overnight end of all fossil fuel use. Instead, the 350.org group which is leading the divestment campaign calls for investors to commit to selling off their coal, oil and gas investments over five years. Fossil fuel burning will continue after that too, but the point is to reverse today’s upward trend of ever more carbon emissions into a downward trend of ever less carbon emissions. Furthermore, some of those backing a “divest-invest” strategy move money into the clean energy and energy efficiency sectors which have already begun driving the transition to a low-carbon world.

3. Divestment is not meaningful action – it’s just gesture politics

The dumping of a few fossil few stocks makes no immediate difference at all to the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. But this entirely misses the point of divestment, which aims to remove the legitimacy of a fossil fuel industry whose current business model will lead to “severe, widespread and irreversible” impacts on people. Divestment works by stigmatising, as pointed out in a report from Oxford University: “The outcome of the stigmatisation process poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies. Any direct impacts pale in comparison.”

The “gesture politics” criticism also ignores the political power of the fossil fuel industry, which spent over 0m (£265m) on lobbying and political donations in 2012 in the US alone. Undercutting that lobbying makes it easier for politicians to take action and the Oxford study showed that previous divestment campaigns – against apartheid South Africa, tobacco and Darfur – were all followed by restrictive new laws.

Those comparisons also highlight the moral dimension at the heart of the divestment campaign. Another dimension is warning investors that their fossil fuel assets may lose their value, if climate change is tackled. Lastly, backing divestment does not mean giving up putting direct pressure on politicians to act or any other climate change campaign.

A cardboard version of the Statue of Liberty stands in the ocean at the Gaviota Azul beach in Cancun December 8, 2010. Greenpeace staged a performance sinking the world's best known landmarks in the ocean as climate talks take place in the beach resort.
A cardboard version of the Statue of Liberty stands in the ocean at the Gaviota Azul beach in Cancun, Mexico. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters

4. Divestment is pointless – it can’t bankrupt the coal, oil and gas companies

More organisations are divesting all the time, from Oslo city council to Stanford University to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, but the sums are indeed relatively small when compared to the huge value of the fossil fuel companies. But the aim of divestment is not to bankrupt fossil fuel companies financially but to bankrupt them morally. This undermines their influence and helps create the political space for strong carbon-cutting policies – and that could have financial consequences.

Investors are already starting to question the future value of the fossil fuel companies’ assets and, for example, it is notable that no major bank is willing to fund the massive Galilee basin coal project in Australia. This myth can also be turned on its head by considering the risk of fossil fuel companies bankrupting their investors. Many authoritative voices, such as the heads of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, and the Bank of England, Mark Carney, have warned that many fossil fuel reserves could be left worthless by action on climate change. If the retreat from fossil fuels does not happen in a gradual and planned way investors could lose trillions of dollars as the “carbon bubble” bursts.

5. Divestment means stocks will be picked up cheaply by investors who don’t care about climate change at all

To sell a stock you have to have a buyer. But the amounts being divested are too small to flood the market and cut share prices, so they won’t be going cheap. Also, the buyers of the stock are taking on the risk that the fossil fuel stocks may tank in the future, if the world’s nations fulfil their pledge to keep global warming below 2C by sharply cutting carbon emissions. If these stocks are risky, then the public and value-based institutions primarily targeted by the divestment movement should not be holding them. The argument that owning a stock gives you influence over a company leads us neatly into the next divestment myth.

Guardian journalists explain the ‘keep it in the ground’ theory in easy to understand terms

6. Shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies is the best way to drive change

This argument would have merit if there was much evidence to support it. When, for example, the Guardian asked the Wellcome Trust to give instances where engagement had produced change, it could not. And as campaigner Bill McKibben has pointed out, engagement is unlikely to persuade a company to commit to eventually putting itself out of business. In fact some market regulators, such as in the US, do not allow this kind of engagement.

The leading environmentalist Jonathon Porritt spent years engaging with fossil fuel companies only to conclude recently that such efforts were futile. Nonetheless, serious engagement could drive some change and 2015 has seen both BP and Shell having to support such shareholder resolutions. But such resolutions need specific changes and deadlines to be effective. Whatever your view, remember this is not an either/or situation. Many campaigners view divestment as the stick and engagement as the carrot, with both aiming for the same ultimate goal.

Traders work in the crude oil options pit at the New York Mercantile Exchange in New York, U.S., on  February 23, 2011. Oil surged to 0 a barrel in New York for the first time in two years as Libya's violent uprising threatened to disrupt exports from Africa's third-biggest supplier and spread to other Middle East oil producers.
Traders work in the crude oil options pit at the New York Mercantile Exchange in New York, US. Photograph: Michael Nagle/Getty Images

7. Divestment means investors will lose money

Many of those who have divested so far are philanthropic organisations, universities and faith groups who use their endowments to fund their good works. Selling out of fossil fuels would cut their income, say critics, as those companies have been very profitable investments over the last few decades.

The first response to this is money does not trump morality for many of these groups. But the second is that when it comes to investments, the past is no guide to the future. Coal stocks have plummeted in value in recent years, as has the oil price in recent months, meaning recently divested funds have actually avoided losses. Furthermore, a series of analyses have suggested divestment need not dent profits.

Of course, oil prices might rebound, possibly even coal prices. But such volatility is unwelcome for investors looking for steady incomes. And for long-term investors, major financial institutions including HSBC, Citi, Goldman Sachs and Standard and Poor’s have all warned of the risks posed by fossil fuel investments, particularly coal.

Perhaps the best response to this myth is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating: over 180 organisations have already asked themselves if divestment would help or hinder their missions and then gone ahead and done it. The most notable is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, founded on a famous oil fortune. Valerie Rockefeller Wayne noted that funding companies that cause the problems being tackled by their programmes is pretty dumb: “We had investments that were undermining our grants.”

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8. Fossil fuels are essential to ending world poverty

Fossil fuel supporters often argue that coal, oil and gas made the modern world and is vital to improving the lives of the world’s poorest citizens. It is an emotive argument. But the most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, written and reviewed by thousands of the world’s foremost experts and approved by 195 of the world’s nations, concluded the exact opposite. Climate change, driven by unchecked fossil fuel burning, “is a threat to sustainable development,” the IPCC concluded.

It warned that global warming is set to inflict severe and irreversible impacts on people and that “limiting its effects is necessary to achieve sustainable development and equity, including poverty eradication”. The IPCC went even further, stating that climate change impacts are projected “to prolong existing and create new poverty traps”.

That could not really be clearer. The challenge is to ensure poverty is ended by the large-scale deployment of clean technology, and shifting money out of fossil fuels by divesting could help that.

An airplane flies past the Canton Tower (L), or Guangzhou TV Tower, during a hazy day in Guangzhou, Guangdong province January 21, 2015.
Smog in China: an airplane flies past the Canton Tower, better known as Guangzhou TV Tower, on a hazy day in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China. Photograph: China Stringer Network/Reuters

9. Most fossil fuels are owned by state-controlled companies, not the publicly traded companies targeted by divestment

This is true. The International Energy Agency estimates that 74% of all coal, oil and gas reserves are owned by state-controlled companies. The most straightforward response to this is that divestment is just one of many ways of trying to curb carbon emissions and that international action at state level will of course be essential. But there are reasons why divestment could help. The listed fossil fuel companies have huge influence and undermining their power could embolden politicians in leading nations to deliver ambitious international climate action.

In any case, many of the biggest state-controlled companies float some of their stock, while also contracting the publicly traded companies to help extract their reserves. Furthermore, the state-controlled reserves tend to be the ones that are easiest and cheapest to extract and are therefore the most sensible to use in filling up the last of the atmosphere’s carbon budget, the trillion tonnes or so of carbon that scientists say is the limit before dangerous climate change kicks in. Last, the extreme and expensive hydrocarbons that really must stay in the ground – such as tar sands, the Arctic and ultra deep water reserves – are the near exclusive preserve of listed companies.

10. It’s none of your business how other people invest their money

First, some divestment campaigners target their own pensions funds – it is their money. But even if it is not, the impacts of fossil fuel investments are not limited to the stock owners themselves. The carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning are causing climate change that affects everyone on Earth. Furthermore, the “none of your business” argument would imply no divestment campaign was legitimate, meaning the harm caused by tobacco and apartheid South Africa would have gone on longer.

More information:

350.org’s Fossil Free campaign

Carbon Tracker Initiative

The Burning Question, by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark

The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2C, by Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins (Nature, 2015)

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Observer Ethical Awards: 10 years of winners

March 9th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Observer Ethical Awards: 10 years of winners” was written by Megan Conner, Katie Forster, Ed Cumming, for The Observer on Sunday 8th March 2015 08.45 UTC

The Community of Arran Seabed Trust (Coast)

Diver Howard Wood on how the winners of the 2008 Conservation Project category went on to secure a marine protected area around the south of Arran

Nothing changes fast in marine management, so the higher your profile, the more government may listen to you. That was something that became apparent after winning our ethical award in 2008.

We have grown as an organisation since; at heart we are still a Highland-based community organisation, but we now have two-full time employees, whereas before it was purely volunteer-led. And we have an office. The whole business has become larger and more professional.

Scotland had decided that the only people involved in fisheries management would be commercial fishermen – a bit like only having builders and developers on a planning committee. With some excellent lawyers, we managed to convince the government to acknowledge that the seas were a resource that they have to manage for the public benefit. In 2008 we achieved the designation of Scotland’s first-ever marine No Take Zone and community marine reserve; last year a marine protected area was designated around the whole of the south of Arran. I think that’s a huge achievement for a small community group.

Next, we hope to achieve better marine management for the entire Firth of Clyde, to set up marine interpretation facilities on Arran, and replicate our work around the coast of Scotland in other communities. There is a constant challenge to be heard by the Scottish government and get better policies for our badly degraded sea beds and fisheries. Being ethical is not always completely possible; we still need petrol outboard engines to get around the islands here, for example. But you can try.

Things are slowly changing. If you look at larger companies, they now have ethical policies. Even if it’s just a bit of greenwashing, they’re still thinking about it.

'By 2016 we hope to provide sanitation systems in more developing countries': Virginia Gardiner of Loowatt
‘By 2016 we hope to provide sanitation systems in more developing countries’: Virginia Gardiner of Loowatt. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer

Loowatt

Their waterless lavatory bagged the Big Idea award in 2013. Now, says Virginia Gardiner, CEO of Loowatt, they’re providing sanitation systems all over the world

Ours is not your everyday message, so getting recognition from the Observer was important. The waterless toilet system we created, Loowatt, collects human waste in a sealed filter that can be easily emptied. It’s basically waterless toilet technology, but we also generate energy from human waste, so it’s very popular in developing countries and areas of the UK where you need an off-grid toilet: the countryside, festivals… We first publicly demonstrated the luxury mobile loo unit at Latitude in 2014.

I was actually very pregnant at the time we won the award, but it was great to be at the ceremony and meet like-minded people who are also interested in sanitation. Since winning, we’ve received more than m in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Initiative, which will help us to scale up our pilot system in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, and put in more than 100 household toilets. We are also testing a new model designed for women in informal settlements, who have nowhere safe to go to the toilet at night. By 2016 we hope to be ready to provide sanitation systems in more developing countries.

An interesting part of our job is working with two markets that are so different. In the UK we’re building more event systems offering a luxury experience and we’re taking the toilet on the road to festivals. People are always surprised the toilets are so nice to use, so if you get to try a Loowatt, let us know what you think.

'There is no conscience in the mining industry: if you want to look into the dark soul of capitalism, look there': Greg Valerio.
‘There is no conscience in the mining industry: if you want to look into the dark soul of capitalism, look there’: Greg Valerio. Photograph: Richard Saker/Observer

Greg Valerio

Since winning his Global Campaigner award in 2011, Fair Trade jeweller and activist Greg Valerio has travelled all over the world to investigate the mining industry and expose the murky business of the trade in gems and precious metals. Now he’s launching his eponymous label

I’ve been a jeweller since 1996, and there are times when I have wondered why I’m in the business at all. I was in India when I first saw the exploitation of the supply chain – slavery, child labour, people working in terrible heat. That’s when I became an activist in the industry. By 2004, I’d managed to deliver the world’s first traceable gold, from mine to wedding ring.

I never expected to win the Global Campaigner of the Year award, though. I was up against Greenpeace and Avaaz, who both do a fantastic job, and I was very happy just to be nominated. Since then I’ve been travelling a lot, helping to initiate better supply chains. I’ve been to Sierra Leone, and worked with ex-militia in eastern DRC; I’ve been to Greenland to look at the problems with conflict rubies, and to California to see the toxic legacy issues of mercury left over from the gold rush – an estimated 19 million pounds of mercury in the watersheds. There is no conscience in the mining industry: if you want to look into the dark soul of capitalism, look there.

Now that we have traceable supply chains, it’s really important to expose the hollow marketing narrative that holds the jewellery industry together. It’s a completely manufactured value based upon people’s narcissism and the false pretence that somehow these products – gold, diamonds – make them special.

The dignity of the person who dug the product out of the ground is just as important as the dignity of the person who buys it. So I’ve written a book about the story of Fair Trade gold, called Making Trouble, and last year I started shooting a documentary in Uganda with Dartmouth Films, the production company who made Black Gold and The End of the Line.

As for the future, I’m going back into jewellery under my own name: Valerio Jewellery will have launched by this summer. I’m also working alongside the Gemmological Association of Great Britain on an accreditation system for gemstones and diamonds, which is really exciting because they’re the next big thing that needs to be addressed.

We have to be able to say this is not just a negative campaign: here we have the opportunity to do it right. If I look at a wedding ring and know where it has come from, and the impact that purchase had on that community, and I see the joy on the faces of the couple who buy it, that’s a positive legacy.

'There’s a misconception that if something is expensive, the worker is paid more': Carry Somers (left) and Orsola de Castro.
‘There’s a misconception that if something is expensive, the worker is paid more’: Carry Somers (left) and Orsola de Castro. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/Observer

Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers

Since winning their respective Ethical Fashion Awards in 2010 and 2011, Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers have partnered to create Fashion Revolution, a global initiative to encourage transparency in the fashion supply chain

Orsola de Castro It was cool to win an award for sustainability in fashion at a time when sustainability was not at all in fashion. Since then, From Somewhere [the designer label De Castro co-created, working with pre-consumer surplus from manufacturing houses and textile mills] has collaborated with Speedo and worked with Topshop on three bestselling collections. Fashion Revolution began as a reaction to the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh. Carry had the idea and called me straight away. Its aims are to encourage transparency and redress issues within the supply chain: there’s a misconception that if something is expensive, the worker is paid more. There are events all over the world, from open-air catwalks in Madrid to workshops on how to detox water in Nepal, and a dedicated Fashion Revolution Day [24 April, the anniversary of the disaster]. It’s about treating everything you buy with the respect it deserves.

Carry Somers In the days after the Rana Plaza disaster, there was a lot of discussion around why we need a more ethical fashion industry. I thought unless we channelled that momentum, it would dwindle and something similar could happen. Orsola seemed ideal to work with as she’s the “queen of upcycling”. The idea of Fashion Revolution is to create a platform which everyone – retailers, designers, academics – can use to showcase best practice. Pachacuti [Somers’s Fair Trade company, best known for its Panama hats] has helped a few hundred people, whereas Fashion Revolution can potentially change the lives of millions. Last year, Fashion Revolution Day trended worldwide. This time we’re asking people to turn an item of clothing inside out, take a selfie, contact the brand and ask: “Who made my clothes?” If we keep asking questions, it will start to filter through to the people who make the decisions.

'It’s been amazing to see so much wildlife flourish on a site that was previously household waste':
‘It’s been amazing to see so much wildlife flourish on a site that was previously household waste’: John Hall (centre, with Anne Watkinson and Terry Morris) of Essex Wildlife Trust Photograph: Suki Dhanda/Observer

Thurrock Thameside Nature Park

Essex Wildlife Trust won the Conservation Award in 2011 for its plans to transform a landfill site. CEO John Hall reveals how it happened

Four years ago we were deep in the planning stages to turn an 845-acre landfill site on the north bank of the Thames into a nature park. The site had taken waste from six London boroughs for 50 years, but we’d secured a 99-year “pie-crust lease” that would enable us to build on top of 20 metres of landfill. I can remember feeling like we were up to our necks in it; the first phase was building a visitors’ centre that required unique engineering and various people were questioning what we were doing. The Observer Ethical Award came along at a time when our resolve was being tested and gave us a much-needed boost of energy and confidence.

We opened a year later, in May 2012, to great fanfare: HRH the Duke of Kent visited the site and in 2013 we had an official ceremony with Sir David Attenborough and more than 2,000 attending. In his opening speech David described the project as “a miracle” and I think we were just so pleased to have him there that we all started crying.

It’s been amazing to see so much wildlife flourish on a site that was previously household waste: we have cuckoos and nightingales singing, peregrines and short-eared owls hunting, skylarks, shrill carder bees and adders out in the sun – and even a pod of porpoises in the Thames estuary. Years ago the area was populated by swarms of gulls, so it’s quite amazing to think that such a variety of animals are living on what is essentially a pie of rubbish capped with clay. We still have a way to go – there are still 400 acres to restore – but already it’s a living landscape.

Tanya Ewing in front of Longannet power station, Fife.
Tanya Ewing in front of Longannet power station, Fife. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/Observer

Tanya Ewing

The entrepreneur dedicated her life to her groundbreaking energy-and-water monitor, which won the Big Idea Award in 2008. Now she’s championing a new money-saving invention

When I first entered the awards, I was at the prototype stage with my product. I was in awe of the judging panel and to have their endorsement was a great seal of approval for its marketplace possibilities. We took the product to market a few months after we won; a year later we were starting to see revenue from sales. I was receiving tens of thousands of emails a week from people wanting the product, but because of money constraints we could only manufacture small volumes, so we focused on the new housing market. House builders were given points under the code for sustainable homes for installing our product, and that helped generate the sales we’re enjoying today.

I left the company seven years to the day after I founded it. I wanted some flexibility – I’d given the company my life for all that time, and I wanted to spend time with my young son. I also wanted the freedom to work on something without having to worry about shareholders. I started helping other low-carbon inventors take their products to market, and came across an innovative magnetic secondary glazing business called Glaze ’n’ Save. Now I’ve bought the concept and begun commercialising it. So I’m starting all over again!

Grace Harrop (left) and Emma Howard, former pupils at Queen Elizabeth II School in Peel, Isle of Man.
Grace Harrop (left) and Emma Howard, former pupils at Queen Elizabeth II School in Peel, Isle of Man. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/Observer

Queen Elizabeth II High School

Pupils in the Isle of Man scooped the Ecover Young Green Champions award in 2013 after their Grow Your Own Clothes project impressed judges. Grace Harrop, 18, reveals what happened next

The intention of growing our own clothes was always to make a statement about the impact of fast fashion: clothes made cheaply but unethically. It just so happened that by experimenting with bacteria, tea, vinegar and sugar in a bath, we also grew quite a good fabric. Since winning the award we’ve become fascinated by the science of it, but we’ve also been able to keep publicising our message. We’ve taken part in a fashion shoot at the Jane Goodall Roots and Shoots awards, appeared on BBC Songs of Praise and spoken at the UN Convention Framework on Climate Change in Bonn. We’ve also won more awards, including the Society of Biology Prize at the National Science and Engineering Finals. And we were filmed for the Zayad Future Energy Prize, presented at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.

In the meantime, some of us have left school – the four founding members finished their A levels last summer so we’ve handed the project over to Year 9 students, but we’ll still be their mentors. It’s their project now, we want them to develop it – maybe see a bit of the world publicising it, like we have, because it’s been fun.

'People are amazed at the underground tank in my garden because you can only see the lid': Averil Stedeford outside her eco house in Oxford.
‘People are amazed at the underground tank in my garden because you can only see the lid’: Averil Stedeford outside her eco house in Oxford. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/Observer

Averil Stedeford

The first ethical awards in 2006 saw Averil Stedeford, now 82, win DIY Project of the Year after she helped pioneer ‘retro-greening’ through the transformation of her own 1950s semi-detached house

Winning the award kick-started a whole series of events. The local press heard about it and named me “Oxford’s green granny”, which was rather nice. I started having open days so people could see the house and there were so many visitors I had to get stewards to help. Professional architects also came, which flattered and delighted me no end. People were amazed at the underground tank in my garden because you can only see the lid, and they didn’t know that rainwater could be used to flush toilets and run the washing machine. I still come downstairs and think: “This is my house.” But a lot happens in 10 years. Since winning, I’ve had a stroke and, just recently, cancer – I have no plans for the future but to enjoy living here as long as I can. Awareness of eco homes has improved a lot since I won the award 10 years ago. I am pleased there are more grants available now for those who want to build them. In 2006 hardly anyone had heard of using organic paint or fleece for insulation and it was very expensive. Now it’s actually quite reasonable. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the turbine I’d planned to in the end, as they’re not very efficient in an urban setting, but everything I’ve installed has worked well without any problems. The sun heats up water in the solar panels so the boiler doesn’t have to work so hard. To make your home more eco-friendly you should insulate well. When the gas man came to read my meter, he said: “You don’t use much!” as if I was a very bad customer – I liked that.

Vote in the 2015 Ethical Awards

The deadline for entries to this year’s award is 16 March. To nominate yourself or someone you know, go to observer.co.uk/ethicalawards

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