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Earthship Brighton

Turn off the taps before mopping up the water: the climate adaptation vs mitigation debate

The recent floods in the UK are a grim foretaste of the future, with climate change likely to make storms, floods and droughts more severe. Of course we need to adapt our buildings, flood defences and other infrastructure to cope with more extreme weather – but some of those who oppose climate action are now arguing that all our efforts should focus on adaptation, rather than continuing to try to mitigate the impact by reducing the carbon emissions that are causing the problem in the first place.

The ‘adaptation only’ argument has two major flaws. First, if we abandon any attempt to limit our emissions then we will suffer far worse consequences in the future. There is a big difference between the impacts of a two degree temperature rise – possibly just about manageable with a major effort – and the extreme scenario of a four, five or even six degree rise. If this does not sound extreme, bear in mind that the earth was only four degrees cooler than today during the last ice age.

Extreme climate change is likely to push us over a number of crucial tipping points, including dieback of the rainforests, melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheets (with sea-level rise of several metres, flooding large parts of many of the world’s large coastal cities), widespread extinctions and crop failures. Despite David Cameron’s promise that “money is no object” when paying to help flood-damaged communities in the UK, it is highly unlikely that the global economy could bear the costs of adapting to such extreme climate change – even if it were technically possible.

It simply does not make sense to try to adapt to a changing climate without also tackling the problem at source – by cutting emissions of greenhouse gases.  If water was rushing through the ceiling from an overflowing bath, would you just start mopping it up without first going upstairs to turn off the tap?

This leads to the second flaw in the argument. Cutting carbon emissions is not a costly burden on society. It brings a host of co-benefits – cleaner air, more secure energy, healthier lifestyles, new jobs – that can more than pay for the up-front costs of investing in safe, clean, efficient, low-carbon technologies. If we abandon efforts to cut emissions, we will remain dependent on dirty, increasingly expensive and environmentally damaging fossil fuels.

It seems obvious that we need both to adapt to future climate change and also continue to cut emissions. Of course money is tight – but that adds more weight to the argument in favour of mitigation, both because mitigation can pay for itself in the long term, and also because we simply cannot afford the costs of dealing with the extreme levels of climate change that will result if we abandon mitigation.

Smart planners will look for the synergies between adaptation and mitigation – win-win actions which increase our resilience to climate change at the same time as cutting greenhouse gas emissions. This could be as simple as painting roofs white in hot countries, to reflect the sun and provide natural cooling while cutting the need for electricity-guzzling air conditioning. Or planting trees in towns to provide natural shade and cooling at the same time as absorbing carbon dioxide from the air (and providing a habitat for wildlife). They will design buildings to be sturdy and well-insulated to cope with extreme weather, at the same time as saving energy and cutting emissions.

And they will try to avoid actions with negative feedback, such as big flood defence schemes that use vast quantities of fuel and concrete, adding to the emissions that are causing the problem in the first place. Instead they will use intelligent approaches such as planting trees in upland catchments to reduce water run-off, and planting winter cover crops to avoid soil being washed into rivers (thus reducing the need for expensive dredging).

A smart approach to adaptation and mitigation can help us to escape our costly and expensive addiction to fossil fuels, redesign our energy-wasting buildings and shift towards more sustainable and resilient forms of agriculture. We just need to look at the big picture, rather than focusing on one problem at a time, to see how all these issues are connected.

Earthship Brighton

Earthship Brighton: Sustainable building that both adapts to climate change and mitigates impacts. Photo: Dominic Alves

Underwater UK: how to stop floods by planting trees

The Thames is higher than I’ve ever seen it – seagulls swim on the football fields, my route to work is underwater, and thousands of homes face the misery of flooding.

With this kind of extreme weather likely to occur more often in future, how can we adapt? It is human nature to look for big engineering solutions, and many are calling for more dredging, so that rivers can discharge faster, as well as for higher flood walls and sea defences. These options certainly have a part to play, but there could be far greater benefits from a more subtle ‘soft engineering’ approach – working with nature rather than against it.

A thoughtful article by George Monbiot tells the fascinating story of a small group of Welsh hill farmers who rebelled against the standard practice of chopping down trees, grubbing up hedges and digging drainage ditches – advocated in order to cram more sheep onto the land. In the words of the article, “It made no economic sense, the animals had nowhere to shelter, and the farmers were breaking their backs to wreck their own land.”

Instead, the Pontbren farmers planted shelter belts and woodlands using 120,000 native trees, and restored 16 miles of hedges. They created 12 new ponds, and protected natural wetlands instead of draining them. Although their main aim was to return to traditional farming methods and protect wildlife, the changes had another important effect. Heavy rain running down the hills simply disappeared when it reached the belts of trees. Research has now shown that the land planted with trees soaks up 67 times more water than traditional grazed pasture, and the amount of water running off the land is reduced by 78%. In fact, even though only 5% of the land was planted with trees, this was capable of reducing peak flows downstream by 29%.

In contrast, much of the engineering work traditionally carried out on UK rivers can actually make flooding worse. Dredging and straightening rivers, and building high banks that separate them from their flood plains, allows water to shoot straight down from the hills into the nearest town. A more intelligent approach is to allow rivers to form natural features such as meanders, braids and ox-bow lakes, which slow down the passage of the water and allow more of it to soak into the surrounding land, as well as trapping logs and boulders which can damage bridges and houses.

Dredging and building hard defences may be a necessary part of the solution in some cases, but it also causes further adverse impacts – damaging the ecosystem of the river and its floodplain, and using fuel and cement that result in further pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Softer approaches, in contrast, have multiple co-benefits. Planting trees stores carbon, thus helping to mitigate climate change and alleviate the risk of future extreme weather events. Trees stabilise the soil, thus reducing the amount of sediment swept into rivers, protecting the soil and improving water quality. By adding nutrients as leaves fall and rot, trees improve soil fertility. And they provide shade and shelter for livestock, and habitats for wildlife. Perhaps most remarkably, one study in Latin America showed that trees even make cows happier – it seems that they feel more secure with shrubs and trees to hide behind.

As well as protecting against flooding, trees can help to reduce the risk of droughts. By slowing down the passage of water to the sea and increasing absorption into the soil, trees allow water to be stored in the soil and vegetation, and more water is diverted to replenish underground aquifers.

In a future of more storms, floods and droughts as well as threats to biodiversity and food security, it makes sense to invest in solutions that tackle all these problems at once, rather than the false promise of dredging that can make matters worse in the long term.





Fracking in Wyoming

Fracking: Why not?

The UK is steaming full-speed ahead towards a fracking future.  We are going to bribe local communities to accept fracking – allowing councils to keep all the business rates generated, sweetening each new drilling site with a £100,000 hand-out and then promising to share 1% of the profits with local people. And that’s on top of massive 50% tax breaks for fracking companies.

According to David Cameron, this will bring economic prosperity and energy security to Britain. It seems that shale gas is now considered to be a green fuel, essential for tackling climate change. Gas prices are expected to plummet, as they have in the USA. And of course there is no risk of environmental damage, thanks to the UK’s robust regulations. So what’s the problem?


1.   Wells

With conventional gas in permeable rocks like sandstone, you just drill into the rock and the gas comes spurting out under pressure. One well can drain a large sandstone reservoir. With shale gas, the rock is not very permeable so you can only extract gas from the area you can reach by horizontal drilling and fracturing. In the US, well pads are spaced as close as 500m. Striking aerial photos reveal landscapes defaced by sprawling networks of well pads, access roads, storage tanks and waste water ponds.  Over 82,000 wells have been drilled in the US since 2005, damaging 360,000 acres of land and fragmenting wildlife habitats.

It’s not yet clear what the drilling density would be in the UK. The industry claims that the above-ground footprint will be smaller than in the US.  AMEC’s report for the UK government envisages between 30 and 120 well pads of 2-3 hectares, spaced 5km apart, each with between 6 and 24 wells, giving up to 2,880 wells in total. The report does not explain how these estimates were derived, though it emphasises that they are illustrative only, and are not predictions of what will actually happen.

2.  Water use

A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the fractures in order to keep them open and allow the gas to flow out. Huge quantities of water are required – 10,000 to 25,000m3 per well, and this has caused drought-stressed towns in Texas to run dry. The UK water industry acknowledges that water shortages may restrict the scope for fracking in certain areas.

3.  Water pollution

Ever seen tap water being set on fire? That can happen when fracking causes methane to leak into groundwater above the shale, though industry representatives claim that this can be avoided through best practice. The problem with fracturing rock is that it’s hard to make sure that the fractures do not extend into overlying rock formations, or intersect existing faults in the rock, allowing methane or fracking water to escape upwards into the overlying rock formations.

On top of this, there’s the problem of waste water. About two thirds of the fracking water returns to the surface, laced with toxic drilling chemicals plus minerals, some of which are radioactive, that have dissolved out of the rock. In the US, this polluted water can be left to evaporate in storage ponds, pumped back into old wells or trucked to a treatment plant before being discharged back into rivers. However, there have been numerous cases of pollution caused by spills or leaks of drilling fluids, leaks from storage ponds, or illegal dumping of waste water in rivers. Also water treatment may not be effective, especially when bromides in the fracking fluid react with chloride used at treatment plants to form carcinogenic trihalomethanes.

A recent study showed that many of the chemicals used in fracking fluids are endocrine disruptors, and that groundwater and rivers in fracking areas have higher levels of these chemicals.

4.  Trucks

A constant stream of heavy vehicles are needed to bring in construction materials for the well pads, heavy machinery and drilling fluids, and possibly to bring in fresh water and take away waste water for treatment. The AMEC report estimates that 16 to 51 vehicle movements will be needed per day at each site, causing noise, dust, vibration, congestion, road accidents and pollution.

5.   Air pollution

Fracking causes air pollution from operation of vehicles and drilling machinery, flaring of gas and evaporation of drilling chemicals. In the US, local people report health problems including nosebleeds, headaches, nausea, eye irritation and respiratory problems, which have been linked to high concentrations of pollutants such as benzene, toluene and xylene.

Of course, we have been promised that “The UK has the most robust regulatory regime in the world for shale gas and companies will only be granted permission to frack for shale if their operations are safe.” In the UK, for example, the industry claims that flaring will not be allowed and waste water must be stored in sealed vessels rather than open ponds. Yet at the same time, the UK government has just succeeded in preventing the European Commission from making environmental statements mandatory for shale gas companies, and it has rejected calls from the Royal Society for specific regulations on shale gas production. Other regulations are being dismantled fast, including the need to inform householders that fracking is going to take place under their properties.

In the US, there are concerns that the industry is trying to stifle dissent by imposing draconian gagging rules as a condition of compensation paid for the pollution they cause. In one extreme case, a family including two children aged 7 and 10 were banned from talking about shale gas for the rest of their lives.

But what about the promised benefits for fuel prices? As Lord Browne, chairman of fracking company Cuadrilla, pointed out recently, gas prices will probably not go down because the UK is part of the European gas market, which is unlikely to be affected by the volumes of gas produced in the UK.

And jobs? Well, the AMEC report estimates that a maximum of 16,000 to 32,000 jobs could be during the few years while the wells are being developed – somewhat lower than the figure of 70,000 being quoted by Cameron. But this should be offset against the number of jobs that could be created if the investment was diverted to renewable energy.

And finally – is gas really a green, low carbon fuel? Well, it’s certainly less polluting than coal, but far more polluting than renewable sources such as wind and solar. In terms of greenhouse gases, electricity from gas produces about half of the emissions of coal, but you need to add the effect of any methane that leaks from the fracking and drilling operation. As methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide, just a small leakage rate can wipe out the benefits that come from burning gas instead of coal, according to a study by Cornell University. In any case, a gas-fuelled future will not allow us to cut carbon emissions fast enough to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.

Perhaps the most telling comment came from Lord Howell, a conservative peer and former government energy advisor, who suggested that fracking should take place in the “desolate north-east”. Subsequently correcting this by saying that he actually meant the north-west did not really help, and neither did his clarification that “The general story is right – that we want the derricks for fracking to be far away from residences in unloved places that are not environmentally sensitive. It’s odd that they’ve decided to do this in sensitive places down in Sussex.”

So fracking is great, so long as it’s in the “unloved” north, and not in the “sensitive” back yards of Lord Howell and friends.


Forests win at Warsaw: landmark deal on REDD+

Another climate conference; a few more tiny, acrimonious steps taken towards a global deal to cut carbon. As always, the 19th conference of the parties at Warsaw seemed like too little, too late.

But in one area there was an uncharacteristic outbreak of progress. Seven crucial decisions were approved, finalising a global framework for paying developing countries to protect their forests – otherwise known as REDD+. On top of this, the UK, Norway, the US and Germany put $280 million into the World Bank Bio-carbon fund for REDD+.

That’s not to say that everyone is happy with the outcome. The talks were marred by a dramatic walk-out of many delegates in protest at an attempt by Papua New Guinea, on behalf of the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, to re-insert an amendment that had previously been deleted.

The trouble with REDD+ is that it’s a great idea in theory, but highly controversial in practice. It offers the tantalising prospect of protecting rapidly disappearing tropical rainforests, rich in stored carbon, and achieving a vast range of co-benefits. As well as being hotspots of biodiversity, tropical forests prevent soil erosion, provide clean water, regulate regional rainfall patterns and provide homes and livelihoods for indigenous people.

But there are numerous problems in actually achieving these co-benefits in practice. For one thing, the indigenous people who should benefit most from REDD+ have often been marginalised, seeing the rights to their homeland traded away without the necessary “free, prior and informed consent.”

A further set of problems lurk in the innocent-sounding “+” at the end of the REDD+ acronym, which stands for – wait for it – “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, plus measures to conserve and enhance forest carbon stocks and promote sustainable forest management“. The bit after the “plus” refers to planting new forests, re-foresting previously cleared forests, or changing the way in which extraction of forest resources is managed. There is concern that the scheme could be used to subsidise commercial plantations, even perhaps indirectly encouraging the felling of native forests with a view to establishing subsidised oil-palm plantations on the land later.

The next barrier is the difficulty of monitoring and verifying the carbon emission reductions achieved. How do we know that a forest would have been felled if the payments were not made? And if we direct funding towards the countries where forests are most at risk of felling, are we not penalising the countries that have already taken the decision to protect their forests? What happens if the carbon stored in a REDD+ forest is lost or damaged due to fire, disease, illegal logging or climate change? How do we estimate the amount of carbon stored anyway?

Great progress has been made on all of these issues over the last decade. Satellite technology has improved monitoring and verification, and a comprehensive set of safeguards has been devised to ensure that indigenous people retain their rights and livelihoods, and that biodiversity is conserved. The rules set at Warsaw  specify that countries cannot receive money under REDD+ until they report on how social and environmental safeguards are being implemented.

The battle to strengthen REDD+ safeguards is certainly not over yet. At next year’s climate conference in Lima, delegates will decide exactly what information goes into the reports on safeguards. And despite all the progress over the last few years, one expert believes that the only truly successful REDD+ deal to date is the Surui project in Brazil, where the local indigenous tribe are leading the project.

But perhaps the greatest concern is that REDD+ will distract attention from the need to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels. The main source of finance is currently voluntary carbon offsets bought by companies, and opponents argue that this gives companies an excuse to carry on polluting. Even if REDD+ was incorporated into an international carbon cutting agreement, such as a cap-and-trade mechanism, some observers fear that the availability of relatively cheap forest carbon credits could drive down the price of carbon, removing the incentive to invest in low-carbon energy and energy efficiency measures. Or that without a global agreement on forest protection, deforestation could simply shift elsewhere.

This emphasises that we need a very carefully designed regulatory framework, to make REDD+ work without diminishing fossil fuel reduction policies. If we can achieve this, we can gain a vast range of co-benefits – cutting pollution, safeguarding biodiversity and protecting local livelihoods.


A tale of two strategies

Today I finished the basic pages for my new website, One of the last pages I added was this one: A tale of two strategies. It compares two visions of the future:  business-as-usual, where we continue our dependence on fossil fuels, and a more hopeful picture based on a prosperous and vibrant green economy.

Considering I wrote this a year and a half ago now, for the last chapter of my book, it is proving eerily prescient – and not in a good way! As I read back the details of the first strategy – business as usual – it sounds pretty much like a summary of what’s going on in the news today. Faced with rising energy bills, the Australian government is scrapping their carbon tax. Here in the UK, the government is pushing subsidies for shale gas production whilst threatening to ditch support for energy efficiency and renewables. Oil exploration is expanding into the pristine Arctic wilderness. Meanwhile, Typhoon Haiyan bears witness to the threat of higher-intensity extreme climate events, and the economic and social damage that result.

It could be so much better! A raft of new research is strengthening the case for stronger climate action. By escaping our dependence on fossil fuels, we can cut air pollution, improve energy security and ensure much lower energy prices in the long term. I’ll be summarising the latest research on my News page over the next few weeks.

Fortunately, there are plenty of more enlightened politicians and business people blazing a path towards a cleaner, safer future. The UK, US and some other European countries have just pledged to stop funding new coal-fired power plants. Procter and Gamble announced that they have saved $1 billion so far through their drive towards zero-waste manufacturing (see foot of page 3 in this report). Around the world, people are finding innovative ways to cut carbon at the same time as winning economic, social and environmental benefits – such as young Australian entrepreneurs Pollinate, bringing affordable solar-powered lighting and efficient stoves to the slums of Bangalore as well as cutting kerosene smoke and providing employment for local people. So I live in hope!



Cartoon by Joel Pett from USA Today, December 2009

Welcome to my blog

Hi! Welcome to my blog.

This is a place to escape from the doom and gloom that often goes with any discussion on climate change, and look ahead to positive solutions that have multiple benefits.

This is strictly not a place to discuss whether or not climate change is a real problem. That debate has taken up far too much of our time already. My argument is that it makes little difference what you believe about climate change, because we need to do almost all the same stuff anyway. It makes sense to stop wasting energy and resources, halt destruction of the rainforests, switch to clean, renewable energy sources and adopt more sustainable farming practices.

If we do all this, we can gain many benefits – cleaner air and water, safer and more secure energy supplies, healthier lifestyles and a stronger economy. These ‘co-benefits’ can more than pay for the cost of investing in clean technologies.

Of course there are also cases where climate-friendly solutions have drawbacks or trade-offs, such as the accident risks and waste disposal problems of nuclear power, and the visual impacts of wind turbines. Rather than just choosing the cheapest technologies or those that save the most carbon, policy makers need to look at the big picture and consider all the pros and cons of each option, so that they can minimise the conflicts and maximise the co-benefits.

This blog is linked to my website at and builds on my book The Climate Bonus: co-benefits of climate policy.

Please join in the debate – all comments are welcome so long as you are polite and open to reasoned discussion!