Copenhagen may have done little to unlock the wheels of international climate treaty negotiation, but across the world people and institutions are hard at work meeting the challenge of climate change. And if that requires a wholesale re-imagining of the way we do things, then the good news is that the revolution is already under way…
UAE’s PIONEERING CITY
One key area in (literally) building a sustainable future is more intelligent design of our built environment, which accounts for most of the world’s energy needs. In the United Arab Emirates, a pioneering project is re-designing, from scratch, the ways we build and live. Dubai may grab the headlines as an architectural fantasy-land, but the truly radical architecture is going on in neighbouring Abu Dhabi, where Masdar City, the world’s first genuine eco-city, is under construction. Masdar (meaning ‘source’ in Arabic) intends to be a ‘zero carbon, zero waste’ city. There will be no skyscrapers; its car-free, pedestrianised streets will instead be designed to maximise natural light and ventilation. Renewable resources will fulfil the city’s energy requirements, including those of the desalination plants needed to provide its 40,000 residents and 50,000 commuters (who presumably will be encouraged not to commute individually in SUVs!) with water. Given that urbanisation began in the Middle East, and the current worldwide transition from primarily rural to primarily urban living, it is both fitting and timely that the region should provide us with a blueprint for the way humans will live in future.
SAVING THE RAINFORESTS WITH ECONOMICS
The need to halt the destruction of our planet’s remaining rainforests is near-universally accepted, yet market forces continue to drive deforestation, which today accounts for around one fifth of all CO2 emissions. Various efforts are therefore being made to develop new economic models that would render rainforests more valuable alive than dead. The UN’s Programme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD) aims to do just that, by compensating forest nations for not cutting down their trees.
Similarly, a pioneering initiative between the Iwokrama Reserve in Guyana and UK-based Canopy Capital hopes to create a new dynamic for forest preservation, by recognising and putting a price on the valuable ‘ecosystem services’ – such as rainfall generation, climate regulation and biodiversity maintenance – that rainforests provide. Capturing the ‘utility value’ of rainforests and then trading it on financial markets could radically alter the way forests are perceived and generate billions of dollars for forest nations.
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said, ‘the battle against climate change cannot be won without the world’s forests.’ What is the point of investing a fortune in developing Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) technology while simultaneously destroying one of the planet’s greatest natural CCS systems? But if a way can be found to preserve the world’s forests, then companies like Helveta, which has developed sophisticated satellite tracking technology to tackle the trade in illegally logged timber, could help forest nations derive long-term income from the sustainable management of their forests, rather than short-term profits by simply clearing them.
Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF), an NGO active in the Americas, also advocates using economics to conserve nature. The argument between conservationists and ‘developers’ was in the past presented as a choice between either trees and wildlife or dollars. But by confronting economic arguments with hard-nosed economic facts, CSF is showing governments that they would be foolish to kill their golden goose – that preserving trees and wildlife actually means more dollars.
Marrying commercial viability with sustainability is also the ethos of The Long Run, an initiative that supports sustainable tourism. Founded by German entrepreneur Jochen Zeitz, the initiative comprises nine Global Ecosphere Retreats – destinations range from the Namib Desert to the hills of Costa Rica and the islands of Indonesia. These retreats, all of them areas of high conservation value, are privately owned and maintained by people who are committed to achieving the highest standards of sustainability in their operations. But The Long Run’s holistic approach to conservation goes beyond merely preserving wilderness and protecting endangered species – it also promotes the welfare of local inhabitants for the mutual benefit of all. ‘Sustainability does not need to come at the sacrifice of economic prosperity,’ says Zeitz.
The wider world of business has also woken up to the importance of sustainability, with companies and governments positioning themselves and their economies to profit from the transition to low-carbon living. Green Investment Banks (GIBs) already exist in several countries, and all three main political parties in the UK are developing proposals for a GIB that would provide financing to deliver the green infrastructure – in particular, new energy and transport infrastructure – essential to a decarbonised economy.
A GIB would also support companies developing ‘green’ goods and services – one of the fastest growing sectors of the global economy. Yorkshire’s Camira Fabrics has, with the help of government funding, developed a new fabric made from the fibres of stinging nettles blended with wool. Nettles have many advantages – they grow vigorously, even on poor land that is unsuitable for food crops, without the need for pesticides or herbicides, and they produce strong, flexible stems that have natural fire-retardant properties. The resulting fabric, woven on energy-efficient looms powered by renewable electricity, makes an ideal upholstery textile. It also displaces the need for cotton, a thirsty crop mainly grown in areas of the world that face growing water shortages.
MICE ON THE ICE: POLICIES TO INFLUENCE INDIVIDUAL PRACTICE
Governments obviously have a key role in legislating to enable and encourage the low-carbon transition, especially where voluntary agreements with industry have not delivered results fast enough. The EU plans to force car manufacturers to lower vehicle emissions, and it has ordered incandescent light bulbs (which convert only five per cent of the energy they use into light) to be phased out by 2012. Governments have also introduced measures including mandatory energy ratings on household appliances (such as refrigerators), feed-in tariffs for renewable energy and the banning of plastic bags to incentivise sustainability and penalise wastefulness.
Changing a lightbulb may be a small act in itself, but not when millions of people do it. The ‘mice on the ice’ approach – get enough mice on the ice and eventually it will break – is championed by the Ashden Awards, which recognise the adoption of sustainable energy solutions in the developing world. The fuel-efficient cooking stove is a classic example of a low-tech product that not only tackles climate change but alleviates poverty and transforms people’s lives. Those of us accustomed to ‘nuking’ our food in a microwave oven might be surprised to learn that about half the world still cooks with wood or coal; fortunately new types of stove that use far less of these fuels – and are therefore also cheaper and less time-consuming to run – are now being marketed (and in many cases subsidised) in developing nations throughout the world.
SPREADING THE MESSAGE
Behavioural change is ultimately what will drive the sustainability revolution, and here creative and educational initiatives have a major part to play. Adventure Ecology is an organisation involved in raising awareness of environmental issues in novel and eye-catching ways. Its latest project is a 60ft catamaran named Plastiki (after Thor Heyerdahl’s epic 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition) that will soon begin an 11,000-mile voyage across the Pacific. Engineered almost entirely from reclaimed plastic bottles, Plastiki’s mission is to draw attention to the shocking level of marine pollution, much of it plastics, contaminating the world’s oceans. Plastiki will sail via the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – an unappetising soup of garbage, reportedly the size of Texas, trapped by currents in the middle of the Pacific – in a demonstration of how we can re-use waste rather than litter the planet with it.
Two other projects using creative means to spread an environmental message are the Sink Project, currently preparing a unique underwater exhibition of contemporary art, and the Hard Rain Project, which combines powerful photographic evidence of man’s destructive habits with the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. Initiatives such as these are successfully harnessing the power of art to communicate the need for change to a wide audience.
In short, a lot is being done to address the climate and sustainability crises we face. The combined efforts of projects like those mentioned here, plus myriad others, are having an impact. There are certainly grounds for optimism; but the question remains whether we are working fast enough and on a large enough scale to counteract our ever-burgeoning population. Only time will tell…