A series of debates on the looming energy crisis has concluded that UK construction can lead the way in developing ‘Kyoto Plan B’.
On 3 May, The Edge held the last of a series of three debates on energy and climate change. As a result, the Edge urges the built environment institutions to make Contraction and Convergence a core concern, given their wider duties of public care.
To explain what C&C is, it is perhaps best to start in Exeter. At the Exeter conference “Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change” in February 2005, the prime minister asked scientists what the upper limit on carbon dioxide concentrations should be: they said 400 parts per million by volume. Above 400, the possibility of runaway global warming cannot be ruled out. This could mean 50°C surface temperatures, few plants outside the polar regions, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of years for the climate to recover - mutually assured destruction, to use a phrase from the Cold War. And where are we now? 380 ppmv in 2005 and rising at 2 ppmv per year - so perhaps 12 years from the tipping point.
If we act with urgency, the tipping point might be a bit further away. The global problem can only be solved by co-ordinated international action. We have all got to share the cut in emissions. This has to be negotiated. The problem is how. The Kyoto protocol has been a good start but it is inadequate. It is soon to expire, its targets bear no relation to the task in hand (looking for 10% savings when something more like 90% is required) and it does not include some key players, such as the USA, China, India and Brazil.
We need a system that all countries will adopt. If any country does not sign up, then carbon-intensive industries are likely to move there. Cutting to the chase, carbon production may well have to be rationed according to population. China has argued effectively that since the industrial revolution 95% of the atmospheric resource has already been taken, largely by the West. Therefore China and other developing nations should have a larger share (per capita plus) of the remaining 5%.
This is what C&C is all about. Contraction is progressively reducing global emissions to meet a maximum level, say, 450. Convergence is a programme to move towards an equal share per inhabitant of the planet. This means that individuals in the developed countries will need to reduce their emissions by a factor of between five and 10, while those in developing countries have a chance to grow.
C&C could be the road map for a treaty to replace Kyoto. There is certainly a lot of support for it. New Scientist has described it as Kyoto Plan B. The UK’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the German Advisory Council on Global Change have recommended it to their respective governments. The Africa Group of Nations has formally proposed it to the UN where it has been ratified. The European parliament passed a resolution in favour of C&C in 1998, it has been codified as a bill before the UK parliament (with the second reading due on 1 June this year). The Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists all advocate it.
The Kyoto protocol has been a good start but it is inadequate. It is soon to expire and its targets bear no relation to the task in hand
The importance of C&C came as the conclusion to three Edge debates on energy - supply, demand and balance, and was introduced by its main advocate Aubrey Meyer, of campaign group the Global Commons Institute. But how can we bring it down to earth? In this talk of international agreements, how can the Edge (a ginger group of professionals with an interest in the built environment) in the UK (a small country that currently releases 2% of the world’s CO2) really make much of a difference?
As it happens, in a number of ways. The UK can show leadership, by demonstrating how a developed country can reduce its emissions while maintaining the health and well-being of its population. And everybody can help in this - as Lord Oxburgh, the former chairman of Shell, said at the third debate, a personal response is the fastest and cheapest way of reducing CO2 emissions.
But what about our institutions, particularly the built environment ones, which are the first point of contact for The Edge? Far from being remote and beyond their influence and concern, participants argued that the Kyoto successor treaty was central to all that they hope to achieve, given their wider duties of public care. As global bodies, they can play an important part in the coming debate and show the way to appropriate solutions. Otherwise, it would not be long before people began to ask: “Why weren’t they prepared?” and “Why did they continue to encourage investment in the wrong things?”
The chairman took a vote on whether the institutions should put C&C on their high level agenda and make it absolutely core to all they were about. The support was unanimous.
We need to resolve a catch-22 situation on climate change between the private sector and the government. The government feels limited in its ability to introduce new policy because it fears business resistance while, in the absence of long-term policies, companies are unable to scale up investment in low-carbon solutions. In the discussion afterwards, several people tried to identify the downsides for the institutions, but nobody came up with anything. It will be interesting to see how they respond.
The Edge is a think tank set up to address social and political issues in the built environment. Check the links below for more on C&C.