Rock, paper, scissors

One of the least energy efficient buildings in Britain

One of the least energy efficient buildings in Britain

It’s been an interesting week. The All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group met at the House of Commons to discuss Reducing Emissons from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). His Excellency Laleshwar Singh, High Commissioner for Guyana in the UK, was there to reiterate his country’s offer to protect their pristine rainforest from illegal logging and clearance in exchange for millions of pounds of UK and international assistance. The money, he said, would go towards increased security, development of research opportunities, ecotourism and “sustainable forestry”. Improving education, health and employment prospects for local people would also figure in the plan.

It sounded great (apart from that sustainable forestry bit, thrown in with an alarmingly casual wave of the arm), but then came the catch. The plan is to fund the plan through the various carbon trading markets springing up around the world. The obvious danger is that the emissions saved through avoided deforestation will get cancelled out by industrial emissions. But no one seemed to notice and, somewhat worryingly, there was even talk of how the additional permits generated might be fed into the system without flooding the market.

It would make more sense — if we must go down that route — to use the genuinely avoided emissions (the measurement of which must be an open question) as a basis for the emissions permits that are otherwise spirited out of the ether. In other words, refocus the carbon trading market by basing it on real world measures rather than arbitrary allowances. We’ll know more after Poznan, but for now can only hope that a sensible strategy emerges from the talks.

The following day there was a conference at the Royal Institution to discuss Green Business Strategy. There, we were treated to many gems, including the revelation from Microsoft’s European chairman that 100 million PCs running Vista consume the same amount of electricity required to light 53 million homes. Think about that for a moment: it was presented as an “aren’t we green?” soundbite, but doesn’t it suggest that perhaps all those bells and whistles are going just a little too far?

0-60mph in 3.9secs. Coming to a banker near you.

0-60mph in 3.9secs. Coming to a banker near you.

Then there was the man from Tesla. Tesla produces a 100% electric car that costs just £3.50 to charge up and has a claimed range in excess of 220 miles. Isn’t that fantastic? Er… not really. It takes its well heeled occupants from zero to sixty miles per hour in under four seconds. We would simply ask why. Another slight problem is the £90,000 price tag. The reason was eventually coaxed out of the spokesman. If Tesla were to make a city car, he said, the price would come in at around £24,000 in a market where the competition sits at around a quarter of that. Make a superfast sports car, however, and the sky’s the limit.

Portraying electric cars like this as being somehow environmentally friendly is little short of greenwash. The chassis is aluminium, one of the most carbon intensive metals to extract from the earth. The li-ion battery array weighs in at almost half a tonne, has a claimed life expectancy of just five years (the likely 20% annual deterioration wasn’t pointed out), and bring their own set of problems when it comes to disposal. The Tesla project is doing for everyday motoring what the Apollo project did for lunar mass tourism.

And so despite numerous warnings about the dangers of greenwashing, much of what was being discussed was exactly that. Not once during the day did anyone (apart from the host, BBC environment correspondent Roger Harrabin — who did a great job at digging for the facts) suggest that they wanted to do something for the environment because they felt responsible for its destruction. Business, it seems, isn’t going to lift a finger unless someone tells it to.

This leaves us with a dilemma: who should be calling the shots? Business has the billions of dollars needed to make a change, but won’t do it without being forced. Government has the coercive power to make businesses commit the necessary finance, but won’t use it unless the electorate say so. And we, the masses, are more concerned about the demise of Woolworths and all that preceded it in the financial gloom that the world’s bankers have created for us, no doubt from the comfort of their yachts.

The cycle has to be broken. Individual actions won’t be enough to address the real issues driving climate change, and the public purse should not be used to pay for the destruction wrought by privately owned industry. Somehow, business must pay, but on the basis of yesterday’s meeting, we’re a long way from finding a means to make it happen.

What must not happen is that the world’s forests become simply a pawn in the game. They are vulnerable to exploitation merely through being under the protectorate of some of the world’s most needy, politically unstable countries. They deserve consideration in their own merit, not just as a way for rich countries to continue to pollute.


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