Friday 8 March 2013

Climate Week: Innovating our way out of the problem

This week is Climate Week, Britain’s biggest environmental occasion of the year with half a million people attending 3,000 events nationwide. We at Abchurch have been playing our small part in the office by relying only on natural light this week (and we have plenty of it) – it’s quite therapeutic and I thoroughly recommend it, although with it getting dark around 5pm, you need to know when to give in!

Learning about the technology and innovation UK companies are coming up with to counter the climate change issue is one of the key things we can take away from Climate Week. On Monday, 14 companies and individuals received awards at the House of Commons for their work to tackle climate change over the past year. The innovative examples include Loowatt, a waterless lavatory system that uses anaerobic digestion to convert waste into biogas. Invented by a British company and based in Madagascar; there is a clear application for this product in parts of the world where lack of water is an issue, with an added benefit of generating power for the household. This type of innovation is essential to prevent the climate change fiasco that some people predict.

Another award winner was a documentary film called Chasing Ice, documenting a photographer’s effort to capture the effects of climate change by setting up 34 cameras across 16 glaciers in the Arctic. It really is worth a watch because apart from being visually spectacular, it was made by James Balog, a climate change sceptic until 2005 when he was sent to the Arctic for an assignment and saw for himself the extreme change in the glacial landscape since his previous visit. It also seems to have had a strong impact on viewers – an American fan of the famously right-wing and staunch global warming sceptic Bill O’Reilly says this film “has changed her life”.

Excess Meat Consumption

When it comes to concern about climate change, most people think close to home and of their own transport and energy efficiency. We do need to reduce our personal CO2 emissions, but I don’t think people realise the efficiency and inefficiency of some other products that we buy. Take meat production for example, beef is the least efficient, and pork is the most efficient. Did you know that in the USA 80% of the output from agricultural land is used to feed animals? 80% of corn, 90% of soy, 70% of wheat produced goes directly into the mouths of the animals that will go into our mouths. That’s not all: 50% of the water in America is used to irrigate the food that is fed to animals. This level of consumption is not sustainable in the long term, particularly considering the projected population increases. Research by Exeter University suggests that in order to become sustainable we need to reduce global meat consumption from 16.6% to 15% of the average daily calorie intake – about half of the average western diet.

Many organisations are promoting the concept of eating less meat - not no meat, just less. I think this is a much more workable solution of cutting down the consumption of meat per person. Most people would struggle to go fully vegetarian, so promoting eating less meat is more constructive and realistic. Meat Free Monday for example is a completely workable idea. If more people signed up to this sort of initiative we could quickly cut our demand for meat.

Reducing CO2 Emissions

There are signs that Europe is moving in the right direction in terms of cutting CO2 and making farming more efficient. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the system that subsidises farmers within the EU, is undergoing reforms to align itself with the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. This includes proposals to ‘green’ the direct payments to farms by offering farmers extra money to do green good deeds. Considering the size of the CAP budget (€58 billion in 2011), this is a serious amount of money. It would encourage farmers, for example, to buy items such as an anaerobic digester that would turn cow manure into methane which would be used to generate electricity. However, in true EU policymaker fashion, this is a slow process and the exact specifications of the reforms are still unknown.

Can we afford to change?

Personally, I’m an optimist when it comes to climate change and believe that we will innovate our way out of the problem. There will come a point when renewable ways of producing energy become cheaper than their non-renewable counterparts so economically it will make sense to make the change. Solar power in particular is improving at such a rate it will soon be able to compete with fossil fuels on a cost basis, according to Google co-founder Larry Page and futurist Ray Kurzweil.

So whilst Climate Week is drawing to a close, consider the true cost to the environment of everything you consume. You could even attend an event. And with that I’m off to make a cup of tea. No, scratch that. I’ll have a tap water.

Richard Sowler

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