Monday, 25 October 2010

Cancun Calling

The latest round of climate talks, held in Tianjin in northern China at the beginning of October, ended in as much disarray as a group of diplomats and bureaucrats could realistically achieve. The same arguments that have previously plagued climate negotiations reared their heads again, with the US pointing the finger at China for not accepting binding emissions targets, while others claimed that slow US action on clean energy and emissions reductions is more to blame. Things went so badly that scheduled talks on deforestation didn't even begin, and some of the diplomats in attendance “openly wondered whether continuing the UNFCCC process was even politically worthwhile.

This is all part of the build up to the big event of the year – the 16th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or, as it's more snappily known, COP16. COP15, held last year in Copenhagen, was widely reported on at the time due to the host of famous faces that made appearances during the negotiations – including Barack Obama, Gordon Brown, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao – and, of course, the huge demonstrations from climate activists that accompanied them. But by the end of the two weeks, little had been achieved beyond the huge emissions of all the delegates flying to Denmark, and those of us concerned with climate justice went home disappointed.

This year's event, taking place between 29th November and 10th December, has so far proved a lot more low-key, not least because of the difficulties of campaigners getting to, and demonstrating in, Mexico, where the event will be held in the glamorous seaside resort of Cancun. Nevertheless, campaigners around the world, including Birmingham Friends of the Earth will be continuing to make demands of their own governments and world leaders.

Our demands include, of course, serious reductions in domestic emissions. There is an increasing view that global temperature rises need to be kept below 1.5 degrees if we are to save the Pacific islands, and other low-lying nations, from catastrophic flooding. The EU is currently committed to just 20% emissions reductions – this needs to rise to at least 40%, and preferably more. Equally important, however, is that these reductions must be made domestically, rather than through 'outsourcing' our emissions reductions to poorer nations.

By paying for cuts in poorer nations and claiming them as our own we are replicating the pattern of power that our polluting, industrial societies are based on – that poor nations, peoples and lands exist primarily for the use of rich ones. This also puts the responsibility for solving climate change on the nations which have the least responsibility for causing it. We need to face up to the consequences of our huge historic emissions and make real cuts in our own country.

Big emissions reductions would not actually be too difficult for our energy-wasting society, and Friends of the Earth and the Stockholm Environment Institute have shown how 40% cuts in Europe's CO2 emissions could be made quickly and (relatively) easily. The only thing missing is the political will to put these ideas into practice.

A second issue is that governments in the rich world need to provide real help to poor countries to adapt to the effects of climate change and develop their own clean, green economies. Friends of the Earth is calling for a Global Climate Fund to be set up which will be under the control of the UNFCCC, while developed nations would like to see the fund run by the discredited World Bank. The World Bank has a long history of imposing damaging neoliberal 'shock doctrine' policies on developing nations as conditions for receiving loans, and to put it in charge of climate funds would not inspire any confidence in those who have been damaged by its past actions.

Finally, the developed nations need to help developing nations address the huge emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation, while also ensuring that the rights of local communities and indigenous people are respected. Existing forest policies have often ignored the ways in which indigenous people and small communities use forests sustainably, for food, medicine and fuel, and this needs to be addressed to ensure that these people are not locked out of using their own lands, which they have looked after for centuries, or even millennia.

In the past few months David Cameron has talked about how his new government will be 'the greenest ever'. It's time for him to live up to those words by making the UK negotiating team show real leadership in Cancun.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Birmingham Jump Two Places in the Sustainable Cities Index

This week the forum for the future released their Sustainable Cities Index. The index, which has been running since 2007, tracks the progress on sustainability of Britain’s 20 largest cities. In 2007/8 Birmingham sat one place from the foot of the table in 19th place, however, last year it jumped two places to 17th place. Continuing with these improvements, Birmingham has jumped a further two places to rank in 15th place this year.

Positions are decided on the measurement of 13 indicators in three broad baskets: Environmental impact, quality of life, and future proofing. Birmingham was awarded its lowest score for quality of life, where it finished 19th. A high unemployment rate, low level of education and lack of green flag or green pennant awards were the major contributing factors. Other low scoring areas were air quality, household waste and local food.

Improvements could be made in these areas by investment in recycling schemes, which would lower the amount of household waste and create more jobs which would follow with more training and improve education. Currently, Birmingham sends most of its commercial waste to the Tysley incinerator, which has been a long term concern of Birmingham FOE because much of the waste sent here could be recycled. Although the council have alluded to changing the system with a Total Waste Strategy, there are no plans to remove the incinerator but instead plans may include utilising the heat generated.

The Big City Plan put forward by the council contains plans for more allotment spaces, but this is an area which needs a large amount of work. Things are already being done, however, for more information see this article.

Air quality should be a major concern for Birmingham, finishing 17th in the category. Major improvements could be made with changes toward low carbon transport, something that the council is planning on, ensuring that all Council vehicles will be electric or powered by liquefied gas by 2015. Although this would help in decreasing the air pollution in the city, it wouldn't have much impact on carbon emissions overall, so more work needs to be done to reduce the number of individual single occupancy cars on Birmingham's roads.

However, Birmingham performed best in future proofing climate change, finishing joint 4th and leaping 15 places. Scoring 21 points of an available 27, on the basis of the Climate Change Action Plan (our response here). Although Birmingham has scored highly for the councils plans, there is still a difference between a plan and action.

Newcastle finished top of this years rankings for the second year running, with forum for the future commending their ambition, “aiming to become a world class hub of science and innovation”. However, key to their success in the rankings was their actions. Birmingham isn't lacking ambition with the Big City Plan and Climate Change Action Plan, and if it can follow through with its plans then major advancements will be seen throughout the categories.

The breakdown of Birmingham's performance in the forum for the future Sustainable Cities Index can be found here.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Tenby Cottages Community Garden Group

Monday night (October 18th) saw the first meeting of the Tenby Cottages Community Garden Group, a community group based in Lozells who are planning on turning waste ground into a community growing space. The project was proposed by Friends of the Earth’s Tom Pointon, and has now been taken on by Sarah Royal of CSV Environment, and I was lucky enough to be in attendance for this first meeting.

The idea of the project is to convert an area of waste ground into a community grow site, where local residents can grow their own fruit and vegetables. The area chosen was once home to a set of cottages (the Tenby Cottages, of course), which were knocked down some years ago as part of a redevelopment scheme by the local council. As yet, however, nothing has been proposed for the site by the council, and thus Tom saw the opportunity to create something positive. Up until recently, the site, located just off Poplar Avenue in Lozells, has been the victim of fly tipping. However, work has been conducted in the past few months by CSV Environment, and the site has been flattened and covered in bark chippings ready to be transformed.

A grow site is an area of disused land (often in an area that attracts anti-social behaviour), which has been transformed to become a place where local residents are allocated a grow bed in which to grow their own food. It is different from an allotment because residents do not pay rent on the site, and everything grown must be for personal consumption. Each resident who holds a grow bed there is given a key to the site, so it is secure at all times. Projects such as this already exist across Birmingham, namely the GEML Project (Grow It, Eat It, Move It, Live It) which has had great success in Ladywood, and the Concrete to Coriander Project.

The meeting was largely an introductory session, allowing local residents to come and voice their opinions on the running of the site to Sarah Royal and Cynthia Cupido, who works for Birmingham City Council Housing. The originally proposed plans had 30 grow beds, measuring 1 metre by 2 metres, laid out in a fairly uniform pattern. However, residents seemed to prefer the idea of less beds and more space for benches to make the site more sociable. There was even talk of a barbeque area being built so residents would be able to eat their produce on site! Also on the site there will be composting bins, where locals will be able to bring their organic waste, as well as a shed in which to keep communal tools.

So what’s next? Once the residents have decided on the layout of the site, CSV Environment will get to work on making the raised grow beds for the site. The council will be investigating whether or not they are able to get a water supply to the site, to prevent any inevitable injuries caused by lugging huge tanks of water back and forth from home! It is then up to the residents to organise themselves into a constitution community group. This will give them access to funding which otherwise would not be available, particularly from “Awards for All”. Despite there not being a huge turnout for the first meeting, the residents who did attend were all enthusiastic about the project, and were keen to get more people involved. There was also talk of trying to get the local schools involved. If a local school was allocated one or two beds, the children there would be able to learn how to grow their own food, and the importance of doing so. It would also be beneficial to get local shopkeepers and businesses on board, as well as local councillors, to support the project.

I was very impressed with the enthusiasm of everyone involved at the meeting.
Sarah in particular was very passionate about getting the site up and running. I think grow sites are a great way of transforming a local eyesore into something which the community can be proud of and ultimately benefit from. Hopefully everything at the Tenby Cottages site will be ready by March next year, just in time for the new growing season! Keep your eyes peeled for pictures in the coming months as the site starts to take shape.

Digital age - sustainable technology?

This week, I attended a conference on making Birmingham smarter and more sustainable through the use of technology.

It was a 2-day event called Beyond 2010, but after the first morning, I decided just to attend a couple of seminars, as they were the only parts that were really relevant enough to my line of work. I'd like to believe that technology could play a larger part in transforming our cities for a low carbon future, but I'm afraid that a lot of it just seems to be intended to driver further consumption, which is completely unsustainable.

Much of the first seminar I went to was rather over my head, as people from companies including BT talked about the ways of increasing broadband speed and getting more people online. Part of why I went to the event was that I have been asked to look at the big city plan in terms of the smart living agenda bits, so I thought this might help me to understand what local authorities need to do to enable private companies to provide the digital infrastructure needed.

The next seminar was chaired by Keith Budden from BeBirmingham Environmental Partnership and was more about what I wanted to get from the event. Firstly, Chris Lane from centro tried to persuade us that even if bus services are pretty awful and overly expensive (after all the subsidies are removed by government), so long as people can look up when the next one is on their smart phone, we'll all want to use them. I can't say I agree with him.

This presentation from Gerald Santucci was one of the more insightful, with lots of stuff about what European cities are doing, although I'm still not totally sure what the Internet of Things is.

At the end we came to the Q&A session and I totally stumped almost everyone on the panel with my question about consumption and how digital technology can be sustainable when it seems to be based around the very unsustainable planned obsolesence principle that has been prevalent in the motor industry. Keith Budden as chair agreed that newspapers could not be produced for everyone in the world, so it is even harder with hi-tech consumer goods.

The materials needed for producing some of the smart phones and other high-tech gadgets are mined in the poorest areas of Africa and other unstable parts of the world (as can be seen here). It seems to me that we won't be able to manufacture all the stuff we need to continue consuming with not only oil running out, but other precious commodities too.

Am I wrong, or is technology really a sustainable solution that will not only help transform people's behaviour, but make cities operate more efficiently?

Monday, 11 October 2010

10:10:10 Parties, Folk music and Marrows the size of Texas

Without fear of sounding a) dull or b) pathetic I've found post grad life to b something akin to say a spaghetti western (with some minor alterations here and there). Tumble weed blowing down a lonely street – a metaphor for your social life, quick fire show downs whereby its your CV your snatching from your holster and what feels like time in the sheriff's office when it comes to living back at home with the family...

You see what the academics don't tell you is the three years spent obtaining that much desired 2:1 doesn't necessarily guarantee you a six figure salary, or a life of idle contentment. So desperate to construct a life you'd be happy with you find solace in other ventures (whilst working minimum wage jobs to scrape together the pennies for travel)!

Enter Birmingham Friends of the Earth and my time spent there as a volunteer. For those of you who feel watching your younger brother count as volunteering allow me to elaborate. For me its entailed Tuesday mornings spent manning reception and attending meetings/craft groups for various campaigns. Side effects have included a puffed up chest, a bounce in my step and feelings of euphoria.

Recently I got bestowed the honour of organising an event for 10/10/10 a global action day spearheaded by Over 7000 events occurred in 188 different countries aimed at raising awareness of the climate change crisis. Did you know for instance that currently carbon dioxide emissions are a 390ppm (parts per million) when the safe limit of co2 in the atmosphere is actually a lowly 350ppm (now you see where the figure 350 comes into it)! All over the world communities gathered on Sunday 10th October, to demonstrate their commitment in being part of the solution by hosting work parties and other such events.

After much deliberation here at BFOE we decided to organise a carbon neutral party, not only a great way of raising awareness but also and outlandish excuse to eat our body weight in home made cakes and party like its 1969.

Organising this event has been very much a labour of love, from lugging boxes of locally produced apple juice across Birmingham; to dragging buckets of water to fill a pond (only to discover it leaked...), to practically stalking musicians in order to get performers- the operative has been 'busyness.' Quite honestly I've loved every minute, especially when my much agonised over vegan cakes worked out and I had a full running order of performers.

And would you believe it – not only did everyone turn up, the buffet table was full and the musicians were great, we were even lucky enough to have a day of that supposed 'Indian Summer' we were promised! Dedicated volunteers (too many wonderful people to name but you know who you are), all turned up to transform our dilapidated back garden into a, I quote '...New York style secret garden party...' complete with our very own wish tree. The acts I'm happy to report surpassed everyone's expectations they weren't just good – they were phenomenal. We were treated to the gentle melodies of The 'Ammer & Chain' Black-country Folk Club, along with humour from John the story teller, operatic singing by Lizzie Nunns, rootsy blues stomps from The Brave Sons of Elijah Perry, poignant songs from the lovely Dan Shaw and tribal drumming (that got everyone dancing) from Choconut. Hey we even had magic tricks from the enigmatic Matt!

Being a fan of the hippie fraternity I was pleased to see that we had a great number of the hemp wearing lovelies all of whom bought local/home made food, Aldo being responsible for bringing the marrow the size of Texas (which by the way was delicious)! I know I'm biased but it really did feel like the event embodied the heart of what community means. An assortment of people from all walks of life, sharing in local produce and creating a little happiness through art and conversation.

The message is a profound one; we must continue to make our voices heard if we are to be the change we wish to see in this world. I feel that 10/10/10 although carrying a poignant message, focused rather better on the positive, that our environment is in dire straits but there are many good people out there who genuinely care and who are prepared to be part of the solution.

Now if you don't mind I've got several months worth of sleep to catch up on and enough cake to last until next Christmas!

Until next time comrades...

Wishing you peace, good karma and all that jazz

Sophia Hobbs

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Low Cost and Low Carbon Transport session at the Conservative party conference fringe

Yesterday I went along to the Climate Clinic at Baskerville House to hear the secretary of state for transport, Philip Hammond, answering questions on how we can deliver low carbon transport at low cost (the age of austerity is mentioned everywhere at the moment).

I was hoping to hear something about what's happening to transport funding ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review to give us an indication of what to expect and how the government will achieve cost savings and to be able to put a question the Philip Hammond myself, but neither of those happened.

I was pleased that the transport secretary does make all the right statements about the need to reduce carbon emissions, even if he doesn't seem to get all the issues, just yet. What I would definitely disagree with him on, is the idea of economic growth and carbon savings not being incompatible. Consumption seems to be so linked to economic growth and consumption = using levels of resources which are environmentally unsustainable on the whole. Also, the government has someone looking at reducing the need to travel as their remit, but this doesn't seem to be in evidence from a lot of the schemes that are going ahead; regional airport expansion, High Speed Rail etc. There still seems to be too much of a feeling that large transport schemes that encourage people to travel more are essential to a good economy.

Philip Hammond is very careful to say that he is “not anti-car, but anti-carbon” and sensibly said some things about which mode of transport was more suitable for which journeys. We agree that in rural areas, there is not always an alternative to the car and it would be very difficult to create an affordable one with such a lack of dense housing. However, there needs to be a lot more ambition in getting people out of cars for those journeys in urban areas, such as Birmingham, where the roads are totally clogged up and many areas have so many cars parked all over the pavements that it makes it hard for pedestrians to walk along them.

He stressed the importance of “greening the grid” for electric vehicles to play a full role as low carbon vehicles, but did admit that we can't make the change quickly enough with technology alone. Quite how he plans to go about achieving the necessary level of behaviour change is still unclear, though.

On land use planning, he said that we need to ensure that we build the homes people want (ones with gardens), not loads of 2-bed flats which nobody wants to live in, as has been the case. Doing this intelligently, and “without restricting people” is part of the solution according to Mr Hammond.

He also spoke about buses needing to change their image (and the people who introduced the meeting had stuff about marketing them for the greener journeys campaign), smart-ticketing across different transport modes and the need for innovative local solutions that are suitable for each area, rather than nationally decided policy.

The other speakers then had a turn – Sir Moir Lockhead from First Group talked more about buses and how they are friends with cars and want to have space for them in the roads, too. He also patted the industry on the back for offering 1million free tickets to people as part of a drive getting people onto buses. No mention was made of the potential cuts to the Bus Service Operators Grant and whether that will stay.

Next up was Edmund King of the AA, who was actually very sensible in what he was saying and quite positive and gave some good stats. He said that 90% of motorists said they would take steps to reduce their environmental impact, 70% of the people who lift-share say they do it for environmental reasons, but more people want incentives for doing it, such as exclusive parking spaces for lift-sharers. He also said that the scrappage scheme had meant 90% of the people switching to smaller, cleaner cars – is that true? He also emphasised the benefits of eco-driving which can reduce the amount of fuel used by 20% and gave the fact that 86% of journeys in the UK are made by car at the moment – another one I'm not sure of – is that true?

Doug Parr from Greenpeace was next and he said that transport is fundamentally different from other forms of carbon reduction because people really feel it in their everyday activity, unlike insulation, changing light bulbs, energy generation etc. he also spoke about oil and the dangers of extracting deep sea oil, as we've seen from the Gulf, and that we should be leaving it in the ground now to avert more environmental catastrophes in colder waters, such as the Arctic and off the coast of Scotland. Another good statistic that he gave is that there is £19 of benefit for every pound spent on walking and cycling initiatives – unrivalled by any other transport investment. I wanted to ask a question of Philip Hammond on this and why the government didn't invest more in it in that case, but wasn't able to do so.

Questions from the floor were asked on various issues while Mr Hammond was still there, including ones on biofuels, hydrogen vehicles, freight facilities for rail and nuclear power. I really wanted to get a question in on HS2 before Philip Hammond left, but the chair, just wouldn't come to me. He left at 7pm, after which there was time for my question, which was “If this is all about low carbon and low cost, why is everyone still talking about building high speed rail, which will not save any carbon and will cost a huge amount of money?”. The chair said “oh controversial question”, yet none of the panel who were left disagreed with me, so it doesn't seem that anyone but top politicians and a few business people really think it's a good idea.

Edmund King said he couldn't understand the reasoning behind it (maybe they'd rashly promised it when rejecting Heathrow) and spoke to me afterwards saying how convenient and easy he found the train for travelling between cities with no need for it to be any faster. Doug Parr was reluctant to rule it out but all the reservations that he gave are ones that the current plans do not meet and where on earth the funding for the transport infrastructure to link in other modes of transport as well as building HS2 is going to come from, nobody seems to have the answer.

Unless we are making the power supply truly green and the rest of the transport system geared to getting people door-to-door, we cannot support HS2 taking people between interchange stations based at airports – that is not low carbon or low cost.

Joe Peacock

Monday, 4 October 2010

Fix the Food Chain: Lobbying MPs to support us

The next few weeks provide an exciting yet critical time for our Fix the Food Chain Campaign. The second reading of the sustainable livestock bill is on 12th November and as this date draws ever closer, we hope to have persuaded enough of our local MPs to help us make a difference to worldwide farming.

Friends of the earth have been campaigning for this for over a year now – see these reports of local and national action:

It is a very exciting yet challenging time, as we lobby our MPs to get one key message through – that we will not stand for unfair, unethical and unsustainable farming. We have this one opportunity to make a huge difference to the farming methods used, not only for the good of the Earth, but for the good of native people, who currently cannot fight against huge corporations that take their land. With irresponsible capitalism comes the wrong mentality: huge corporations care not for the damage they cause to the world, but for the quickest and cheapest way to make more money.

By getting MPs to support this Bill, we can make a huge difference not only to the global ecosystem, through the cutting of greenhouse gases and reductions in deforestation, but also to the native people who rely on this land for their livelihoods, as they have for generations and who want to see an end to the poisoning of their water and soil. By promoting locally grown feed and sustainable agricultural jobs in this country, we can show the benefits of this system and these huge corporations, as well as political leaders, will see that things need to change. Although this is just a beginning, it will show that people are prepared to take a stand and make food an environmental issue, and Friends of the Earth are there at the forefront of this action.

As November 12th gets closer, it is imperative that we act to influence and lobby our MPs to attend the second reading of the Sustainable Livestock Bill, and to successfully use our resources to ensure MPs understand that there is not only a need for change, but a desire for change.

To find out what more you can do, contact or just speak to your MP urgently to put the case in your own words.

Sam James