Science in Society Archive

Science in Society #44 - Winter 2009

The only radical science magazine on Earth

Science in Society 44 cover


Guest Editorial from Alan Simpson MP - Skylines Beyond The Summit
Climate Showdown
350 ppm CO2 The Target
O2 Dropping Faster than CO2 Rising
  Implications for Climate Change Policies
Warming Oceans Starved of Oxygen
Black Carbon Warms the Planet Second Only to CO2
Beware the Biochar Initiative
The Age of Stupid Steers Towards 2010
Letters to the Editor
Pandemic Alert
Swine Flu Pandemic - To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate?
Flu Vaccines & the Risk of Cancer
Swine Flu Virus Created from Pig Vaccine?
Live Attenuated Swine Influenza Vaccine for Children - Safety in Question
CSL Pandemic Swine Flu Vaccine Safety in Question
Vaccines: Prevention or Curse?
Food Fight
UK Food Standards Agency Study Proves Organic Food Is Better
The Day of the Triffid in Transgene Contamination
Renewable & Green
Edward Goldsmith Pioneer of the Green Movement Dies Aged 80
UK’'s Lackluster Low Carbon Transition Plan
Germany 100 Percent Renewables by 2050
Wind Power Could Supply Global Electricity Needs 40 Times Over
Harnessing the Wind with Scrap
Kenya to Build Africa’s Largest Windfarm
The Community Cooker Turns Rags to Riches

Guest Editorial from Alan Simpson MP

Skylines Beyond The Summit

Summits that fail to deliver

Let us be clear about where we are now. The Copenhagen summit is more likely to be sabotaged, not by climate change denial, but by the history of self-deception that has characterised global summits.

Kyoto was seen as an Earth-saving agreement. In reality, pitifully few of those who signed up to it delivered on their commitments. In 1996, the World Food Summit in Rome pledged to cut the number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition by half before 2015. The target was to reduce world hunger to less than 420 million people. In 2009, the World Bank calculated that the numbers had risen to over 1 billion.

In October 2009, European leaders agreed that by 2020 a sum of €100bn a year would have to be allocated towards tackling global warming, specifically in the developing world. The trouble was that no one could then agree who should pay for it. Collectively, the EU said only that it would seek to persuade others to share the bill.  Poland and other East European states did not want to pay anything.  The Germans fought hard to avoid any specific funding pledges.  They wanted to see what the US, Japan and others would contribute.  The Swedes and Danes (bless ‘em) were up for cash commitments, but, in the end, were forced to accept that others would sign up only to a fund that was ‘voluntary’.

Voluntary schemes drown in their own shallowness. Few of the rich nations will pay the levy, but that the poor will pay the price. So, the summit ended with another chasm that divided the press release from the practical solutions.

Global summits have become denial mechanisms around which current vested interests block any engagement with unstoppable forces that will reshape the future.


What Copenhagen ought to address is an almost fundamental reconstruction of global institutions and producing a framework of post-globalisation economics that lives within a maximum 2 °C increase in global temperatures.

Rajendar Pachauri, head of the International Panel on Climate Change, gives us about three years in which to deliver this policy shift, and the following seven years to make it work. Almost everything that follows will be shaped by transformations we make in the coming decade. Human existence has never been at a more critical turning point.

Saying this is not a counsel of despair. Never have we had so much at our fingertips that would make it possible for a genuine transformation of how societies work; living better, but living differently.  It is just that we cannot get there through the current rules, markets and institutions that, between them, suck the life out of life.

Today’s energy markets are rigged in favour of Big Energy; global corporations, as dependant on their outown pollution as they are on state subsidies for dealing with it.  UK households pay £3bn a year to manage the waste from nuclear power plants.  Domestic energy bills will pick up the £2 bn cost of each ‘pilot’ carbon capture and storage (CCS) scheme.  This cost will spiral if we want all CO2 capturing rather than just a bit of it.  Practically and intellectually, it will turn out to be a scam within the ‘Carry on Polluting’ film that just keeps running.

It gets no better when you look at carbon offsetting or carbon emissions trading.  Pollution permits worth billions of pounds are handed out (free) to the biggest polluters.  The cost goes onto your tax or energy bill.  The nuclear industry now wants another ‘hidden’ subsidy by asking the government to guarantee them a ‘floor price’ for carbon of at least $30 a tonne.  Unless nuclear can get access to such a subsidy if cannot remotely break even.

You don’t have to get lost in the detail of this murky world.  Just understand two things.  The first is that we do not have a free market in energy.  It is a market dominated by oligopolies with an over-riding enthusiasm for oligopolistic profits. The second point is that Big Energy has no interest in a shift into decentralised, renewable energy, particularly if it is owned by citizens rather than corporations.

Most energy companies hate the idea of paying citizens for ‘clean’ energy that we generate for ourselves. That is why there has been such opposition to ambitious feed-in-tariffs that could deliver 10-15 percent of our energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Germany already exceeds this figure and their citizens love it.  By 2050 they intend to meet all of their energy needs from renewable sources.  The UK could do the same.  Some of this could come from technologies that are 20 years old (or longer).  Others will need to harness today’s emerging technologies or science.

The key is to harness science and community together.  When people are the common owners (or stakeholders) of their own energy systems it transforms the planning process.  Energy security becomes a local priority when we have to deliver it ourselves.   This is the lesson we have forgotten about in our own history. All of Britain’s founding energy companies, from 1817-1890, were locally and publicly owned.


The same analysis needs to be applied to how we deliver food security.  Siren (corporate) voices will argue otherwise.  Monsanto is back offering Omega 3 rich Soya. (to save the world’s fish stocks). Remember ‘Golden rice’, that would end child blindness and drought resistant everything that would save Africa? The real agenda has never changed. Monsanto et al want to own the patents, charge royalties and end the farmers’ right to save their own seeds.  It is about who owns the food chain rather than how to feed the planet.

Lasting answers to food security will come through conventional plant breeding to improve crops, combination planting to deal with blight and other diseases, localised market systems to reduce crop losses, a humbler relationship to water, and a more honest approach to population.

In Malawi, 100 000 smallholders have intercropped ‘fertiliser trees’ within their maize planting. This fixes nitrogen in the soil and had tripled maize yields. In Kenya, Napier grass was planted between corn crops to trap the corn borer, which had been destroying up to 30 percent of the crop. Dwarf plant varieties have successfully diverted the energy of plants from stem growth into grain yield. Localised markets have avoided huge crop losses, up to 50 percent, where there have been infrastructure problems of storage or transportation.

None of these solutions require the surrender of farmers’ rights to GM crops and corporate ownership. They do, however, force us to plan for their survival in a warmer, drier world. Even the South of England must face this challenge. At present, it has 10 times less available water per person than Spain. In future, it will have even less. Every one of us must become more reverential towards rainfall.

No less challenging will be the construction of a different relationship between land, water, crops and cattle. The World Watch Institute has just produced a report attributing 51 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions to livestock rearing. It does not factor in health impacts, water requirements or the energy inputs for each calorie of output. In the end, however, it may be peak water that forces our most urgent re-think about meat. Which brings me finally to ourselves.


Population is the taboo area of global politics. Future scenarios talk of 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, without questioning whether this is remotely sustainable. James Lovelock argues that by ignoring this question, we will drive climate change to a point where the planet will only support 1 billion ‘survivors’ by 2100.

War is the ‘default’ position of population policies. In the absence of family planning, it obliterates families altogether. Peak water, peak soil, peak phosphates or peak oil could all simply change the terrain of slaughter.

A hint of this came in the recent tribal conflicts in Kenya. Their worst drought in decades saw tribes throughout Kenya fighting each other over the water that remained. The starkest example came after a dawn raid in Kanampiu. The press report said simply “When the shooting stopped 33 people lay dead, along with some 280 animals”. It was the animals that got to me. In conditions of scarcity, you don’t have to kill people, just the things their lives depend on.

In Yemen, the country has already run out of water. Water trucks, with drivers armed with Kalashnikovs, are the only source of sustenance in a land where even dreams are arid. For many, fight or flight becomes the desperate choice of survival.

For the rest of us, the implication is that we may have to reverse the hidden water transfers of recent decades. Cheap goods that the West imported drew on water resources for their production that developing nations barely had enough of. In the future, we will have to find imaginative way of returning the water. The alternative is to accept that tidal migrations of people will follow the water.

These stark realities ought to force the pace of transformation. Reducing over consumption in the West might make subsistence consumption possible for the rest. National food security policies must replace today’s global free for all. Localised energy systems can turn waste into energy (often with natural fertiliser and water) as a by-product. Ingenuity and interdependence can take us into a realm where sustaining and repairing the planet could deliver a future we can genuinely pass on to our children. Ultimately, there may be little else that matters.

Article first published 17/02/16

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