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Book review: Limits to Growth, the 30‐year update

Book review: Limits to Growth, the 30‐year update, By Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows

Review by Alex Coulton

The content of the 30 year update is well researched and rich in detail. The scrupulous approach aimed at achieving complete transparency clearly illustrates the boundaries of the arguments and theories advanced. Today we have irrevocable proof that limits to growth do exist; fish stock depletion, hole in the ozone layer, depletion of conventional oil reserves and Climate Change are but a few examples. Whilst reading this book I had a recurring feeling of three scientists, who are tired of repeating themselves, tired of hearing the same criticism and frustrated by the inaction of world’s leadership. Looking back in time, the amazing success of the original publication is made clear by the vehement criticism that is received (Eastin, J & al, 2010; Turner G. 2008; Wendy, B. 1998, Aligica, P.D. 2009). It seems that the critics are split in two categories. Most were based on an incorrect portrayal of the content of the book and revolved around short‐term validation of predictions (Eastin, J & al, 2010). For others, Limits was an attack on the existing paradigm and became a deep ideological struggle.

What was very clear to me was that this book and the World3 model are an exercise in futures studies using predictions based on what the authors perceive as being critical trends. This has often been used by critics to discredit the theories put forth in the book. In response, the authors refute that they make any predictions. Wendy, B (1998) highlights this beautifully: ‘The authors of Limits struggled mightily to objectively justify their conditional predictions even as they denied that they were making predictions’ even though he refers to the original publication, this still holds true today. What is more important to me, and a belief to which I abide, is Wendy, B’s (1998) explanation that validates the use of predictions as a necessary and unavoidable tool in futures studies and that these predictions cannot be taken as factual. ‘To test the accuracy of a prediction by whether or not it turns out to be true is often misleading as an indicator of the validity of a prediction.’ Hence even though the book does make broad predictions these are not to be taken literally. They are an indication of the plausible future; they highlight trends and their possible outcomes. Another common critic is about the choice of boundaries. The highly aggregated nature of the World3 model lumps a lot of parameters in five key categories: population growth, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output, pollution generation and agricultural output.

Additionally, no effort was made to model other factors such as politics or international relations and for instance makes no allowance for wars, regional or cultural differences. The authors highlight all these ‘caveats’ and the reasons for their decisions in depth. I will pursue my argument along other lines. In Scenario Planning it is critical to identify: the driving forces and the trends that respond to the precise questions that you are exploring (Lindgren, M., Bandhold, H. 2003). This process is limiting, it is not designed to be all encompassing or all knowing, on one hand because that is not possible and on the other because it would make the scenarios too complex to build and communicate. So as system scientists, the Authors and modellers have very astutely and successfully identified key trends and key driving forces in order to explore human growth. I personally support this approach for another reason. Complexity rarely brings clarity; the IPCC’s climate change model is not more able than World3 in predicting the future (even though, as we have seen above, the aim is not to actually predict the future) and the IPCC’s work has come under much criticism as well. By limiting the scope of the World3 parameters that affect our growth the authors have to clearly communicate the notion of exponential growth, and the underlying problems it represents. Foresight, scenario planning and other such techniques are now widely used by government, corporations and institutions and I feel that understand these tools adds a lot of credibility to the Authors’ approach revealing much of the criticism to be nothing more but detraction. This distortion of the Authors’ message by critics as well as proponents was illustrated when ‘Ecologist Paul Ehrlich wagered with economist Julian Simon that, with 1980 as a baseline, by 1990 market prices for cooper, chrome, nickel, tin and tungstend would dramatically increase, while Simon predicted that they would fall. Ehrich lost the wager (…)’ (Eastin, J & al, 2010).

The problem with my ‘world view’ is that although it is closely aligned to ‘Limits to Growth,’ I am very detached from the Authors’ realities and consequently the struggle that they have been involved in over nearly 40 years. Aligica, P.d. (2009) allowed me to gain a better understanding of the ‘competing perspectives’: The bi-polar ideologies held by the Limits to Growth Authors (Neo-Malthusianism movement) and the ‘free market supporters’ amongst who’s ranks Julian Simon’s figures prominently. Aligica, P.D. (2009) states: ‘With it [Limits to Growth] a new tradition was born. And in this respect it is no exaggeration to say that Simon [James] (…) with authors such as Herman, Kahn, created a counter-tradition by reaction systematically to what they considered to be the errors and even fabrications (…).’ Two points are worth highlighting here. The ‘systematic’ nature of the criticism and the reference to traditions. Lines were being drawn in the sand and you were either on one side or the other. Suffice to say that it does not set the scene for an objective analysis of the issue and therefore did not promote a constructive debate. This does great injustice to all the great minds involved. In many ways one could equate the ‘counter-tradition’ as a repeated misinterpretation of the message and vice versa. A positive feedback loop? ‘The limits to growth’ discourse about resources and population has been dominated by the concept of fixity or finiteness of resources (Aligicia, P.D 2009), in this Simon James is correct. The discourse has been dominated by resources limits however; this was only a small part of a much larger message which mostly got lost in the entrenchment. The authors of Limits to Growth do not suggest that humans do not have the creativity to overcome the stated limits (that are more than just resource based) as James suggests, but that within the current system structure they will not have time to overcome these due to the nature of the speed of exponential growth rates and the inherent delays in the system. To put it simply, market penetration of new technologies is measured in decades as does, for example, brokering international agreements to tackle pollution problems. Hence our Authors are indirectly rooting for many of James’ theories by advocating for time for them to prosper. Another key contention surrounds the ‘free market.’ James’s views are again well portrayed by Aligica, P.D (2009): ‘many people resist the idea that markets are the best mode of coordination and social distribution’ and these inadvertently link back to accusations of Marxism. Ironically, Karl Marx’s just so happened to be one of the most vocal critics of Malthus (Schoijet, M., 1999). Our Authors do not dismiss markets as the best mode for coordination and social distribution. Markets are an integral part of their strategy however they were, and still are, incapable of safeguarding us from the relationship between exponential growth rates and system delays that create overshoot. As our Authors highlight, even economists have been clamouring for many years for ‘internalizing the externalities’. Again, we can see that the opposing factions have much more common ground than they themselves perceived or where maybe willing to admit to. Another point of critique was the proposal of a ‘preferable’ future. This is unavoidably a subjective process which in the words of Wendy B (1998), ‘it (Limits to Growth) is an effort to better the human condition, to help create a human future more desirable than the future that probably would occur if humans keep doing what we were then doing.’. This introduction of values into the scientific method was highly criticized by James who says ‘Science, in the measure it deals with facts and nor with values, can hardly decide where there is a case of overpopulation or one of under-population (…) whether the growth rate is too fast or too slow’ Aligica P.d. (2009). It is unlikely that objectivity can ever be reached in the context of social sciences however putting forth a ‘preferable’ future is part of the ‘futures’ exercise (Wendy, B. 1998)!

Finally, Ekins, P. (1992), states ‘one of the most comprehensive rebuttals came from a team at Suisse University’s Science Policy and Research Uni (Cole et al., 1973). They criticised the relationships in Meadows’ model, the assumptions on which model was based and the emphasis on purely physical parameters.’ I would argue that in doing so they inadvertently validated the work of Limits to Growth, a work that did not just attempt to put forth a new vision for the world but to stimulate debate and reflection about how we intended on pursuing our futures. The Suisse team mitigated the limits to growth with ‘exponential increases in available resources (through discovery and recycling) and the ability to control pollution’ (Ekins, P. 1992). Recycling and introducting pollution control measures is vindicating the need to mitigate against uncontrolled growth again, time is the issue. Evolution? The incompatibility of the perceived message of Limits to Growth and the ‘free market’ proponents were brought together in the Brundtland report and the concept of ‘sustainable development.’ In my view the actual message in the 30 year update advocates for just that and so it seems did the original book (even though the terminology did not exist at the time). One could have imagined that this middle ground, a combination of sustainability and development, would settle the matter. This has been far from the truth. The ideological divide was brought into the very definition of ‘Sustainable development’. Schwarz, P.M & al. (2009) do a brilliant job at highlighting these entrenched views whilst Wilson, E.O. (2002) depicts the rift between environmentalists and economists. These deeply entrenched views are well ingrained in society and have been shaping the world of politics since the first publishing of Limits to Growth but are in fact part of a much larger debate.Today the climate change science denialists who dominate the Republican Party in the United States are the latest development in this war. In a recent article entitled Capitalism vs. The Change, Klein, N. (2011) reports that for the Heartland Institute’s president Joseph Bast ‘Climate change is the perfect thing…its the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway’ revealing the bigger picture in which this struggle is set.

Concluding remarks.

The first edition of Limits to Growth has had a deep seeded impact on society. On one sidethere has been a gradual shift in society’s perception towards a long term reflection on our actions as the principle of ‘sustainable development’ gains ground. On the other, the rift between the Authors (and their proponents) and their critics could hardly be more dramatic. Klein, N. (2011) highlights this wonderfully in the following sentence: ‘Many of our culture’s most cherished ideas are no longer viable. These are profoundly challenging revelations (…) This is the crucial point to understand: it is not opposition to the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but rather opposition to the real world implications of those facts’ and although this is specifically about climate change, the arguments are one and the same. Hence, those who oppose it, oppose it despite the clear and concise argument because they are emotionally predisposed to disliking it even though as we find more and more evidence that limits do exist resistance to change only intensifies. Because of this, the 30 year update completely falls short of its aim although this does not reduce the importance of the Author’s message or their impact on society.

Archive: The Case for an International Court for the Environment

This article was kindly submitted by Stephen Hockman QC in Nov 2011.



The Case for an International Court for the Environment

Lack of an appropriate institution

“It is a trite observation that environmental problems, although they closely affect municipal laws, are essentially international; and that the main structure of control can therefore be no other than that of international law”.
(Sir Robert Jennings QC, former President of the International Court of Justice, 1995)

Environmental problems extend across international boundaries, but there are no effective international institutions to deal with them properly. The result: the problems worsen and attempts by countries to solve them fail due to the lack of an institutional framework within which to build the necessary international consensus and trust.

The present corpus of international environmental obligations – in conventions and multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) – is fractured and often overlapping. There is little or no opportunity for the development of consistent decision making or interpretation of those obligations. Uncertainty results, to the detriment of all interested parties – States, businesses, communities, NGOs and individuals.

There are proposals for a “World Environment Organisation” (a “WEO” – equivalent in scope to the WTO). Such a body would need a court or tribunal to resolve disputes and issue clarifications of obligations – along the lines of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement process.

Existing dispute resolution mechanisms in the international environmental field restrict access to justice, in most cases to States (as with the ICJ) or where at least one party is a State (as with the Permanent Court of Arbitration) or very limited categories of non-State actors. This leaves significant constituencies without access to those services – an anomalous position in an interconnected world where States are often not the key actors in cross-border interactions.

There is no suitable forum presently able to apply scientific and legal expertise to international environmental disputes or problems. The much respected ICJ has been criticised in this regard (missing “a golden opportunity”) by its own judges in a dissenting opinion in Argentina v Uruguay – Pulp Mills (20 April 2010).

An International Court for the Environment (ICE)

We want to create an ICE that would help to solve these problems. It would:

  • Serve as the default forum for resolution of disputes concerning international environmental law; pronounce on issues of environmental significance impartially and with the benefit of independently-verified science; and clarify existing international environmental law by issuing advisory opinions and declarations of incompatibility.
  • Encourage the consensual and progressive development of international environmental law.
  • Provide a neutral, transparent and principled dispute resolution forum which could help to build trust and to work against the pervasive environmental problem “the tragedy of the commons”: for example, in the ongoing UN climate change negotiations and in fishing.
  • Seek to adjudicate expertly on the science as well as the law, using: judges with experience in both science and law; advisors on a judicial panel; and/or independent experts available for questions/cross-examination.
  • Initially be established as a voluntary dispute resolution forum, open to any body wishing to benefit from the expertise and impartial adjudication offered, and proving its worth by example.
  • Serve as the chamber for all MEAs which reference Art 33(1) of the UN Charter, facilitating communication, problem solving and the interchange of ideas and expertise and avoiding the compartmentalisation of the present system.
  • Provide support to a WEO. ICE would be a natural partner to such an organization to provide dispute resolution services as seen in the WTO and to assist in harmonising international responses to environmental issues.
  • Offer access to justice to State and non-State actors alike, meeting a need in the global economy where national borders are increasingly irrelevant. It would have a constitution designed to reflect the need for the protection of both present and future generations and would be fully committed to implementing Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration and the Aarhus Convention, requiring access to justice for all concerned citizens.
  • Apply a de minimis or other threshold or sufficient seriousness test to prevent vexatious or meritless claims.
  • Apply all those relevant legal rules and principles, whether international or municipal, which it deems appropriate and proper having regard to the character of the dispute before it.
  • Likely be located away from the “usual” seats of international courts (The Hague, Geneva, New York etc) to reflect:
    • The problems with which it will deal (often in developing countries)
    • The problematic link between economic growth and environmental degradation (principally a developing country issue)
    • The fact that many of the users of the court will not be in the rich West.

ICE Coalition at present

The ICE Coalition is calling for the establishment of an ICE. Its work to date includes:

  • Incorporated as a not for profit company limited by guarantee in UK.
  • Obtained tax-exempt status in California under IRC s.501(c)(3).
  • Engagement with UK Government, in particular: DECC, DEFRA, FCO.
  • Through its partnership with the Stakeholder Forum ICE is now participating in the preparations for the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 2012 including involvement with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
  • Engagement with the UN Secretariat in New York.
  • Engagement and involvement with UNEP itself and in particular its International Environmental Governance workstream (including, most recently, at the 26th Session of the Governing Council, Nairobi, February 2011).
  • Involvement with the UNFCCC process, including presenting at the COP-MOP in Copenhagen 2009.
  • Established links with Governments of Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Kenya, UK, Finland, Mauritius and with the EU
  • Obtained support of international law firms: Clifford Chance, DLA Piper.

An Advisory Council has been established and includes the following supporters: Jarvis Cocker, Fabio Feldman, Professor Richard Fortey, Lord Giddens, Isabel Hilton, Teresa Hitchcock, Nigel Howarth, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Sir David King, Caroline Lucas MP, Sir Jonathon Porritt, Professor John Schellnhuber, Professor Peter Spencer, Sir Crispin Tickell.

Summary Recommendations

  • Explicit inclusion of an ICE in treaties emerging from UNFCCC and UNEP processes and inclusion in any Rio 2012 text.
  • Recognition of the need for an ICE by national governments, business, NGOs, media (EU has already explicitly recognised the need).
  • High-level support in government, science, diplomacy, UN, legal profession and judiciary. Simultaneous building of popular support, principally online.
  • Offers of support from any person, organisation or country willing to host an ICE in its initial form.

Book review: The Vanishing Face of Gaia, by James Lovelock.

Reviewed by: Rodrigo Sanchez M., November 2011, Cambridge University.

The very word Gaia may be sufficient to scare away prospective readers of this book (Peter Schroeder, Physics today) but make no mistake: This is a scientific book, far from unfounded public opinions and politics driven media debates over climate change, pitifully frequent nowadays.

James Lovelock, 91 years old, is an independent scientist and a lifelong inventor. In 1961 he was engaged with NASA and its program of planetary exploration studying the composition of the Martian atmosphere for detecting life forms. He is the author of more than 200 scientific papers, distributed almost equally among topics in Medicine, Biology, Atmospheric Science and geophysiology. Lovelock was the first to detect the widespread presence of CFCs in the atmosphere, by inventing an electron capture detector back in 1957.

The Gaia theory establishes that earth climate self regulates, and that the biosphere affects and transform the environment, implying that the Earth and all its living forms behave as an integral living being. This implies an extraordinary complex system. This theory places man away form the ownership of the Earth to one of its many species, an uncomfortable position for many.

Nowadays science is divided into sets of well-differentiated and specific disciplines. However, this reductionist approach seems to be not suitable for dealing with complex problems such as climate change. The Earth climate problem in no exception to this approach, and scientist in general seem to lose the sight of the problem as a hole. Consequently, holistic systems science seems to be an emergent era.

Gaia theory complicates specific science elegant explanations and troubles independent scientific territories. Logically, this is an important reason of why this theory has irritated so many scientists and it has taken a long time for recognising it. The author thinks that this delay and the current reductionist approach of science in general, convenient for personal aggrandizement, could bring deadly consequences.

Lovelock makes a call, not to abandon the Cartesian way of thinking that has served the world so well, but to take the integral Gaia science seriously. He believes that the scientific world tends to live on the theory and models, missing good observers as Darwin was. He recognise this branch of science as the most important. Through the reading you will found interesting insights on how scientific theories evolve till becoming generally accepted.

He doesn’t propose a tangible solution to deal with the complexity of the climate change problem, but the value of this work relies in making the important step of uncovering the deficiencies of actual science.

Parables between his ideas, history and personal experience makes this reading easygoing. Nevertheless, the reader wont lose a pleasant tension created by the thought-provoking nature of Lovelock reasoning and proposals. But not everything is idyllic in this book.

In the first chapters the author has a very pessimistic posture over the future of humanity and life on Earth. His harsh posture becomes annoying when you realise that many of his negative predictions are not consistent or unfounded. In fact the authorrecognize that his pessimism is due to counteract the wrong belief of governments and businesses that climate change is easily and profitably reversible. Though his noble intention, this fact becomes a negative point for the book. Although he strongly criticise the credibility of International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, when basing his negativeness he relies on them “IPCC report predicting a lack of water in many parts of the world by 2030”. Also he ventures to predict future climate even on specific pieces of land, after disapproving all current models and methods.

On the other hand Lovelock scares the reader with strong and well founded evidence, for example how the current Earth warming can’t be fully perceived yet, as the heat is mainly absorbed by the fast melting ice poles and the gradual sea temperature rise. But what will happen when there isn’t enough ice on the Earth to absorb the heat excess? A sudden movement to a hot state and bursting temperature rise seems to be very rational.

Lovelock argues for a faster movement towards a hot earth than the IPCC predicts. Through feed back loops, currently ignored by models, climate changes could occur at an astonishing speed, and rush towards hot states. An example of the above is the melting of the ice poles: as they melt, more heat is absorbed by the earth, which at the same time increases the ice melting. He criticizes actual models, as they fail to include this non-linear relationship between variables. Also he point out that observations are not being taken into account as most scientist seems to be sucked into their models. Observers scientists have measured sea level and temperature rising 1.6 and 1.3 times faster than the last IPCC prediction.

Climatology is mainly based on geophysics and geochemistry and climate change models don’t include physiological respond of ecosystems of land and oceans. This omission hides essential feedback loops, leading to incorrect predictions. James brings to mind that climatologist should be modelling Gaia instead of modelling atmospheric physics only.

Lovelock’s negativeness places the world in a situation where policy making should be equally focused on adaptation than in climate change mitigation. But if we are failing to predict the climate of the future, how are we going to plan any adaptation to it? I am more inclined to believe in a gradual process of adaptation in response to unknown changes, as man has done in his migratory history.

As you progress in reading the intentional pessimistic attitude of Lovelock seems to start dissolving together with the repetitive characteristic of his writing. Thus opening space for a rich and wide range of scientific reflection over different elements of the climate change issue, making clear that is much more than mere CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and its related warming. For example: Acidification of the oceans, due to human waste, makes the seas decrease the amount of CO2 that they can absorb, generating another important feedback loop.

In the Eocene epoch (millions of years ago) a geological accident released a huge amount of CO2 in the atmosphere enough to warm the earth up to 8 °C and took around 200,000 years for Gaia to return to the previews state. Geological records suggest that 55 million years ago the Arctic basin was tropical in temperature with abundant vegetation. Fourteen thousand years ago sea level rose 100 meters. Two billions years ago plant population growth produced a massive climate change in the earth by  ́polluting ́ it with Oxygen, condemning anaerobic ecosystems to and underground life. Like plants we could not avoid reaching an overpopulated state, so should we feel guilty?

The facts presented by Lovelock can make the reader question deep preconceptions,

as it happened to me: If we are just a specie in the Gaian auto-regulated system, aren’t our actions and impacts on the environment integral part of Life and a manifestation of its intelligence? The solutions we are planning to take aren’t part of the self-regulative intelligent power of Gaia also. If so, shouldn’t we do what we instinctively think is better and stop worrying? At the end all would be in the hands of Life, or Gaia.

Back to the book, you will find it ‘eyes opening’ in energy matters, as it contains groundbreaking ideas that reveal his quality as a scientist.

No alternative renewable energy source has yet made a significant impact on energy supply. He accuses the attractiveness of this energy sources to be linked with the benefits produced by subsidies and interrelated with the pressure of a fashionable green ideology. He thinks that this same force is responsible for penalizing clean nuclear energy. Subsidies generate more advertisement on still expensive green energy, generating a feedback loop ending in a growing unfounded trust over these solutions. He accuses green energy to be still to premature for mass implementation and affirms that probably it will take at least 10 years of technology and industry development to make a global impact with solar and tidal energy. Lovelock predicts that the wind energy agenda for England will be remembered as the great killer of this century and looks at the green ideology as a blind way of thinking instead of the life saving of the world. Nevertheless, he intelligently thinks of wind power as good energy source for desalinating water, another issue we will have to deal with.

Lovelock accuses a falsehood around Nuclear energy. The latter has been responsible of 100 dead since it’s operating in the world, much less than those caused by the fossil fuel generation industry. He sees wind energy as a weak solution, because its intermittent and it needs a constant back-up, commonly fossil fuel generation, when not producing. He uses this and other evidence to end in a well-founded conclusion that wind energy in the UK should be abandoned in favour of nuclear energy.

The author explores solutions to predicted problems of food scarcity and living space. He goes through some technological dreams as food synthesis from carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water. Not to crazy considering that a similar product, Qourn, is already commercialized in the supermarket. Lovelock dreams of high-tech compact civilizations able to manage global scarcity of food, water and space.

About geoengineering , you will discover its not new. Human became geoengineers as soon as they discovered fire. Plants also have been geoengineering the planet by changing the atmosphere composition since millions of years. However this solution is described as a double-edged sword, as it could be an excuse for continuing business as usual and with very dangerous side effects like ocean acidification due to uncapped CO2 emissions. I share his point of view that we are still to ignorant for using intentional geoengineering, and I aggregate that if we haven’t been able to reach tangible results in international CO2 reductions then why should we think that we could plan a global geoengineering policy?

Considering actual models and its characteristic uncertainty, I don’t share the opinion that geoengineering could serve as a solution to survive until something better is available, as its effects and side effects are impossible to quantify in a Gaian complex system. In 1991 Pinatubo eruption injected enough aerosols into the atmosphere to cool the temperature of the earth by 3 degrees, so at what extent should we plan, or believe we plan our future climate? Time will tell, but I don’t think we have reached enough maturity as specie.

Lovelock recalls that to understand Gaia requires and instinctive familiarity with the

dynamics of systems. Moreover he speaks about the importance of natural intuition, and thinks that we haven’t yet starting to develop the intuition of Gaia because it haven’t been important, till now, to the natural selection of our specie. It seems that our concern for the impact we are causing on the environment has not been honest enough, an as the author affirms, this could be because no consequences are visible yet. Nevertheless, natural catastrophes seem to condensate in time over the last decades.

Powerful statements in line with his holistic approach are expressed towards the end of the book: “We will fail to react correctly to changes and events until we intuitively recognize the Earth as a living organism”. I totally share this point of view, since we seem to have lost the intuition that makes other animals instinctively escape to the hills before a tsunami. Buffaloes, goats, dogs and flamingos don’t play with complex climate models, but were found unharmed in tsunami events where thousands of people perished (National Geographic).

For Lovelock, the modest experience of learning the old names of flowers from the farmland where he grew was a fundamental catalyst to develop this intuition, which goes beyond numbers.  ̈ We have the intelligence to begin to expand our minds to understand life, the universe and ourselves….but are quite unable to live with one another or with our living planet. ̈ (E.O Wilson).

Finally Lovelock goes farther than you could think, suggesting deep questionings as: What separates an illusion from what we perceive as reality in our minds? In this way, reminding us that our impression of the world is limited to what mind makes with what it gets from our senses.

Totally recommendable reading if you want to understand the climate change problem and its implications from a scientific point of view, and form your own informed opinion. Considering that we completely depend in natural systems, that we are depleting natural resources at a higher rate than they recover and that population is growing day by day. I recommend this book for all backgrounds.

If we are intrinsically part of Gaia, does anthropogenic climate changes exist elsewhere than in our minds? Should we feel proud if being able to win our imaginary battle versus climate change, stealing from the self-regulatory intelligence of Life? Has the life of Gaia an intrinsic finality? Find your own answers and enjoy the reading.

Law in a changing climate

On Monday 21st November, we were delighted to welcome our panels of speakers from the legal profession, who spoke about the challenges and opportunities climate change presents, how lawyers are addressing these issues, and personal reflections on their own careers and advice for those wishing to enter environmental law.

• Stephen Hockman QC, Head of Chambers at Six Pump Court and Director of the International Court for the Environment Coalition
• Gita Parihar, Head of Legal at Friends of the Earth
• Michael Hutchinson, Partner and Head of the Environment Group at Mayer Brown

The extent of the climate change problem that the world now faces was presented in stark terms. It was described as ‘multifaceted’ and an issue requiring a complete overhaul of the economic system and the society in which we live, in a quickly vanishing time scale. All three speakers stressed the importance of not just viewing climate change as a scientific problem, but as Stephen termed a ‘politico-legal problem’ – an issue of justice, rights and the distribution of resources. And it is these dimensions of climate change that are most unsuited to our current institutions and decision-making framework – one that is short-termist and engrossed in economic performance.

Examples of this conflict between long-term and immediate impacts were given by Gita. Friends of the Earth are currently carrying out a judicial review challenge on the Government’s decisions to scrap solar subsidies before the consultation period has ended. Not only is this potentially unlawful, it is also denying communities the right to have access to renewable technologies. Gita is also currently working on the upcoming climate change negotiations that are taking place in Durban this year, and once again, economic concerns seem to be taking priority over environmental justice and climate change action. Hopes for a legally binding treaty to replace the greatly criticised Kyoto protocol are diminishing by the day.

However, Michael was keen to point out that a lot of work is currently being done under such existing frameworks, which is having a positive impact. For instance, international law firms, such as Mayer Brown, are responsible for helping to implement the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and Clean Development Mechanism, by determining the ownership of carbon credits. A lot of work is also being done on the UK’s Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) in helping firms meet energy efficiency performance targets, and also in encouraging investment (particularly from Asian markets) in renewable technologies in order to meet the targets set by the Renewable Energy Directive. These pieces of litigation, along with the Climate Change Act 2008, are unlikely to succeed unless enforceable legal requirements are introduced.

The current inadequacy of institutions to meet the challenge of climate change was addressed by our speakers, who proposed a variety of future changes. Stephen is currently working on developing an International Court for the Environment, which would consist of a body of jurists and scientists who could pass judgment on the way in which we are failing to achieve climate justice and change public opinion. Whilst Gita spoke about how the world can incorporate principles of sustainable development and intergenerational justice by introducing an Ombudsman for Future Generations, just like Hungary.

In terms of a career in environmental law, each of our speakers described the variety and interest they enjoy in their day to day work and how much it has grown and will continue to grow in the coming years. Michael predicted that by 2020, an elite group of international firms will dominate the legal profession, one which will be tending more and more towards Asia, and catering for more niche issues, including climate change. Stephen spoke about the need to develop jurisprudence in this area, to impart clarity in an otherwise uncertain world. Such a dynamic and competitive area requires graduates to have an openness to the multifaceted nature of environmental issues, a willingness to embrace new innovations, and to possess optimism and resilience.

Corporate Change Makers

On Monday 7th November, the Cambridge Zero Carbon Society held its first Careers Showcase for a Low Carbon Economy. Over forty-five students came to hear our speakers talk about the opportunities and challenges climate change presents to business.

Jonathan Grant – climate change and carbon markets specialist at PwC
Ruth Findlay Brooks – Senior Advisor, Sustainability Leadership, University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability leadership
Hugh Parnell – Director at NW Brown Group

From left to right: Jonathan Grant, Hugh Parnell, Ruth Findlay Brooks

We’re not there yet

According to PwC’s annual Low Carbon Economy Index, the global economy’s carbon intensity increased for the first time since 2004, with the UK performing particularly badly. Slow action has cost us – we will need to reduce carbon intensity by 4.8% each year between now and 2050, which is faster than any country has achieved over an entire decade. To put us on a more sustainable trajectory, we need a revolutionary change in the way we use and produce energy. We need a transformation in the traditional business model and a move away from the short-termist thinking that dominates the current business and political decision-making. We need to remove the power from those barring the way to action and impart more certainty within the investment market. We need to change behaviour and reverse consumerist habits. Ultimately, we need to start taking responsibility for climate change.

The business case

The role of business is crucial in the transition to a low carbon economy, and in many cases, firms are leading the way, ahead of governments and individuals. Views of what motivated businesses to act differed between the panel members. Ruth, through her work with business leaders, has found that leadership on climate change is important for recruitment and retention, as graduates are increasingly pushing the sustainability agenda. Jonathan spoke about the co-benefits of low carbon generation and how businesses are responding to new opportunities and risks, especially within the carbon market. Hugh argued that business sustainability is what ultimately motivates the private sector and their continual drive for innovation and the search for the next generation of thinking.

Sustainable leadership

What are the leadership qualities that are required in the low carbon economy? All speakers emphasised the value of innovation and creativity, along with more traditional skills including the ability to build and maintain relationships, deal with stressful situations, work in a team, have high standards of communication and project management, and technical competence. Opportunities within the low carbon economy are increasing rapidly, amongst both small and large firms. The sustainability and climate change team within PwC has almost trebled in four years, whilst there are more than 450 innovative clean tech firms around Cambridge. The opportunities are out there, so seize them and make a positive difference.

We will be posting a podcast of the evening online soon.

Our next Careers Showcase will be looking at the role of law and the legal profession in the low carbon economy: Monday 21 November, 7.30pm, Trinity Hall Lecture Theatre.

Should people offset their carbon footprints?

Carbon offsetting is something we read about a lot these days. It is a complex area and it can be difficult to work out the right way forward. With an increasing amount of people concerned about their environmental impact, buying carbon offsets is one way to go.

What is carbon offsetting?
Carbon offsetting is a growing industry. Companies set up projects that either reduce emissions (by building renewable energy plants, for example), or absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere (by planting or protecting forests). Legal considerations connected to the Kyoto Protocol mean that projects should always be in developing countries.
The list of carbon offset buyers is dominated by private companies, but public sector organisations and charities are cropping up more often. Individuals make up less than 2% of the total.

Why do people buy carbon offsets?
People buy carbon offsets to counteract parts of their carbon footprint that they can not avoid. The motivations for doing so are usually to take responsibility for emissions that are a necessary part of their lives.
Friends of the Earth calls carbon offsetting a ‘dangerous distraction’ because it can lead people into thinking that they don’t need to reduce their carbon footprint – it’s ok to pollute just so long as you pay a small amount to offset it.
More often than not, however, the people who want to offset are also the ones making an effort to reduce their carbon footprint.

Projects that reduce emissions in the developing world are usually well intended, but there are risks. In particular, there is a risk that a project would have gone ahead without the money provided by offsets—meaning that the offsets have no real impact.
A Friends of the Earth report into the industry reveals that offset projects do not deliver credible environmental benefits, stating “There are strong concerns over the environmental credibility of many of the credits and the contribution of the projects to sustainable development.”
Few organisations have the necessary time to do the required due diligence on projects, meaning that some organisations damage their reputation by inadvertently choosing the wrong project.

A new way of offsetting
Retiring credits from the EU Emissions Trading Scheme is one way of overcoming these pitfalls.
This new method of carbon offsetting works by buying and cancelling (‘retiring’) ‘permits to pollute’ from the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Industrial companies that would have bought the permits instead have to reduce their emissions. It is a simple, effective way to offset and it reduces emissions within Europe, where emissions per person are high.
Retirement is gaining support from all areas – even hard-line environmental commentators previous sceptical of offsetting. John Grant, author of The Green Marketing Manifesto, described Carbon Retirement, the first company to offer this service, as “the world’s first truly ethical offsetting scheme.”

Top tips
If you are thinking of buying carbon offsets, read our three point guide.

1. Be able to satisfy yourself that offsetting is not distracting from your efforts to reduce your emissions. You ought to try as hard as you can to choose the green option – and then offset what you cannot avoid.
2. Question whether the project really needs your financial support. If it can stand alone, you could probably spend your money better elsewhere. Or consider a non-project based approach such as Carbon Retirement, which forces emissions reductions from European heavy industry.
3. Look for suppliers that can explain which standard was used to verify the credits. There are many standards available but the most stringent are the Quality Assurance Scheme and WWF’s Gold Standard.

    Jane Burston is a director at Carbon Retirement

    Insights from the National Trust

    I always knew there was a lot to be learnt from the National Trust. As the largest conservation charity in Europe and the second largest membership organisation in the UK, it has to be doing something right. However, during my summer internship I saw a side to the Trust I hadn’t seen before, and it made me realise just how much it has to offer.

    The Trust’s purpose is a simple one: to look after special places for the benefit of the nation, for ever, for everyone. But it is how it goes about it that I find really inspiring.

    Anglesey Abbey

    ‘For the benefit of the nation’ is not an empty statement. It has a variety of policies which focus on the importance of community engagement, supporting and promoting the diversity of local communities, and reflecting our shared multicultural heritage. I was lucky enough to see such policies in action being based at Anglesey Abbey, an innovative and lively property esteemed for its pioneering community work. Here the National Trust involves groups from mental health patients and troubled children from the Croft Child and Family Unit, to long-term unemployed young people, to people on training programmes with learning difficulties, in conservation work as a way of providing mutual benefits. By combining the therapeutic benefits of nature and the outdoors with practical conservation, the Trust is developing innovative ways of carrying out its vital conservation work which are relevant to the present day, while remaining true to the core values and beliefs of its founders:

    “The need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise, and..the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs, common to all men” – Octavia Hill

    The National Trust, very much seeing its places as assets of ‘the nation’, also tries to involve people in its decisions wherever it can. Having witnessed the preparation and opening of the domestic wing at Anglesey Abbey, this is yet another area I have seen in practice. Here the public are being consulted on how they would like the rooms to be presented to them, in what time period and which part of the Abbey’s story they would like to see depicted through the rooms. By engaging the public in this way the Trust is able to give people a sense of ownership and involvement, making its work feel relevant to them, which is all part of its vision of everyone feeling like a member by 2020.

    And it doesn’t stop there. What with its Green Energy Fund, 2020 energy targets and its ‘going local’ strategy, the Trust is linking up with related causes which are a broader expression of its values and objectives. Properties are being given more freedom to develop their individuality to focus on their place-specific stories, surroundings and culture, for example through their restaurant menus or shop stock. At Anglesey Abbey they now have signage produced by local arts groups, stock local produce in their shop and even use rabbits shot onsite in dishes in the restaurant! Many properties are also growing their own fruit and vegetables to sell and use in their restaurants, and the East of England regional office is fuelled by wood chips sourced from its neighbouring Ickworth property.

    These approaches can be applied almost anywhere, including the campaign on climate change. To engage people in a cause they must feel it is relevant to them, that they have a stake in the outcome and that there is a genuine desire to involve them. Community action, providing wider benefits and connecting with other related causes are all great ways to reach out and engage different people.

    The perception of the National Trust as old-fashioned and elitist couldn’t be further from the truth. Its changing image, strategies and innovations are all helping to break down this perception, and as a small part of these changes, being a National Trust Student Ambassador, I’m looking forward to engaging more students in the exciting things happening at National Trust places in Cambridge!

    For more information on how to get involved with the National Trust as a student contact Alexandra on

    Environmental Ambition

    Ask a young person what their vision for a green future is and no doubt they will talk about wind turbines, recycling and public transport. Then ask a young person what they envisage their role to be in that future, and unless they’re aspiring renewable technology engineers or waste managers, they will most likely draw a blank.

    And this is where things need to change. If we are to reduce our carbon emission enough to avoid catastrophic climate change, and if we are to achieve energy security and affordability, and if we are to use our natural resources more sustainably, our whole economy needs to be green. It will be the 21st century’s version of the Industrial Revolution, but this time we have even more at stake.

    Young people can’t feign ignorance at such messages, as they’ve been shouted about for long enough. My generation are certainly environmentally aware, and more often than not, are at least concerned about the issues, but so far we have failed to instil environmental ambition in them.

    “In the future, every job will be a green job, contributing to varying degrees to continuous improvement of resource efficiency” – European Union, 2010

    Sustainability is playing an increasingly important part in all business sectors, and is becoming the new business as usual. Sixty per cent of companies increased their sustainability spending in 2010, despite the downturn (Sustainability: The ‘Embracers’ Seize Advantage). The global low carbon market was worth more than £3.2 trillion in 2009/10 and is projected to reach £4 trillion by 2015 (Enabling the Transition to a Green Economy).

    However, businesses are currently being held back by a shortage of workers with the necessary skills and knowledge to further their low carbon ambitions. In the Leadership Skills for a Sustainable Economy report, 70% of respondents agreed that the gap in sustainability skills will become one of the most pressing challenges facing UK businesses in the next five years.

    Future business leaders, lawyers, engineers, bankers, accountants, advertisers and every other graduate needs to be informed, inspired and prepared for the Green Revolution. The University of Exeter Business School have recently launched the One Planet MBA, in partnership with WWF, and are training ‘planet-minded business leaders’. It would be a mistake to think such courses are solely for the green-hearted hippies. They are simply the smart ones, who are putting themselves ahead of the competition and discovering a professionally and personally rewarding future.

    The Green Paradox: Programme for an Illusion-Free Climate Policy

    Hans-Werner Sinn (2008), Das grüne Paradoxon: Plädoyer für eine issusionsfreie Klimapolitik (The Green Paradox: Programme for an Illusion-Free Climate Policy), Berlin: Econ

    Reviewed by Ray Galvin

    Cambridge University

    Most of the literature on climate change mitigation explores what can broadly be termed ‘demand-side’ solutions. These aim to reduce global demand for fossil fuels by improving energy efficiency, generating renewable energy, or changing consumerbehaviour. It is assumed that each tonne of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) saved through such means will follow through into a tonne less CO2e emitted worldwide, and that even if only a minority of countries reduce their CO2e emissions, or even if yours is the only country to do so, this will make a difference to climate change. Every little bit helps.

    Hans-Werner Sinn is one of a small number of academics who disagree. The only way to guarantee a reduction in CO2e emissions from fossil fuels, he argues, is to proactively keep them in the ground, or at least drastically reduce their extraction rate.Since by far the major portion of global CO2e emissions comes from the burning of fossil fuels, restricting their supply – the amount that can be extracted – should be the focus of our climate change mitigation endeavours.

    Sinn has strong credentials as one of Germany`s leading economists. Professor of economics at Munich`s LMU and President of the German Institue for Economic Research, his contributions have covered topics such as the theory of economic risk, business cycle theory, and the efficient allocation of economic resources. Though speaking from a broadly orthodox basis, he parts company with both mainstream and radical-green thinkers on the key question of what is useful and what is a hindrance to genuine climate change mitigation.

    The core of Sinn`s argument for supply-side climate change mitigation was presented in English, in heavily mathematical form, in International Tax and Public Finance1.A sketchy account may be found in his speech to the 8th Munich Economic Summit, Climate and Energy: Right Goals, Wrong Approach?2 But it is in this 470 page book, Das grüne Paradoxon (The Green Paradox) that the details of his argument are fleshed out and expressed in language that non-economists can easily follow.

    There are three main pillars to Sinn´s argument. The first concerns the psychology and business economics of ownership of fossil fuel resources; the second the business habits of fossil fuel consumers; and the third the realistic limitations of technical solutions to climate change mitigation.

    Firstly, he argues, owners of fossil fuel reserves generally want to maximise their long-term profits. Since their extraction costs are just a few percent of their selling price, they can drop the price so as to increase their sales to ecological ‘sinners’whenever a green-minded country reduces its demand by increasing its energy efficiency or its supply of renewable energy. Hence, demand reductions by greenminded OECD countries do not translate into one-to-one supply reductions. They are highly likely to be partially or even completely offset (depending on the elasticity of demand) by increased demand as the price falls.

    Further, this is exacerbated by the business psychology inherent in ownership of fossil fuel reserves. If owners foresee a future where more and more countries will gradually go green, and fear that at some future date (such as the oft-mentioned 2050) they will have no markets for their fuels, good business sense tells them to sell as much as they can as early as they can, to avoid being left with useless stocks in a few decades` time.This is exactly the reverse of what the climate needs, yet, Sinn argues, it is just what current polices are causing.

    The only solution, says Sinn, is to effectively ambush the owners of fossil fuel reserves with a sudden, enforceable pact among all countries to reduce their demand on a strictly, globally agreed trajectory. Only a certain amount of fossil fuel, based on the tonnage of CO2e it would produce, would be permitted to be extracted each year, and this would diminish, year by year, on a clearly defined path. Reserve owners would have no choice but to follow this path. An international controlling body – Sinn suggests the UN – would distribute permits to countries on an agreed basis, and their governments could auction them, or in some other way distribute them, to their consumers. Like the current EU carbon certificates, they would be internationally tradeable, but unlike the EU certificates they would cover all fossil fuel.

    Two important consequences would follow. Firstly, the price of fossil fuels would fall, as reserve owners competed with each other for sales in the diminishing market. Consumers, of course, would pay more overall, as they would have to compete among each other for the certificates. But governments would reap a windfall from the auctioning of the certificates, and this money could be distributed to offset hardship to low income people due to rising fuel prices. Secondly, fossil fuels would be locked up in the ground, to be extracted gradually over whatever time span was deemed safe for the climate. Owners of fuel reserves would have a lower income, but one that would last far longer into the future, than the current situation allows.

    The second strand of Sinn’s argument concerns the business habits of fossil fuel consumers, or at least those he calls the ‘sinners’ – the USA, China, and all other countries that have either not participated in the Kyoto process or were exempt from its restrictions. Because, currently, there are no restrictions in these countries as to how much fossil fuel one may buy or consume, the law of supply and demand operates freely here. If the international price falls due, say, to German or British successes in reducing their demand, the sinners can get cheaper fuel and so will buy more. Their increased demand puts upward pressure on the price, until an equilibrium is again reached. The net effect is that global fossil fuel usage is not reduced, or hardly reduced at all. Of course, there are many other factors influencing the day-today price of fossil fuels, but the most significant dynamic is ever-increasing demand as developing countries industrialise.

    It follows that under the current global regime, all the efforts being put into technological and regulatory solutions to fossil fuel demand in the developed countries are, in Sinn`s view, no use at all in combating climate change.

    The third strand of Sinn`s argument concerns these technological and regulatory measures. For example, in a cogently argued chapter (pp. 204-251) he takes issue with biofuels. Using well-sourced date he argues that these produce almost as much, if not as much, CO2e as they save. Further, they compete with food production for arable land and agricultural resources. For the first time in history, he points out, the price of basic foodstuffs is now directly coupled to the price of fossil fuel. It is not merely that food growing requires fossil fuel for tractors and fertiliser. It is that a particular set of agricultural resources (land, fertiliser, expertise) can now be used interchangeably for either food or fuel production. The world’s poor now have to compete with the rich countries’ petrol tanks for their daily bread. This will get worse if policymakers continue to pursue biofuels as a means to combat climate change.

    In a further section (pages 297-304) Sinn challenges the view that carbon capture and storage is a valid demand-side alternative. Assuming it works and can be madeeconomically viable, the obvious problem is disposing of the enormous volumes of liquefied CO2 it produces. For coal power this is 5 times as much volume as the fuel burnt; for oil 3 times as much. It cannot be stored near populated areas because if it leaks on a windless day it can asphyxiate everyone in low-lying areas. It must be held secure for hundreds of thousands of years because, unlike nuclear waste, it never decays. The idea that we can safely store the gargantuan volumes of CO2 our power stations will produce over the next few hundred years is, Sinn argues, simply fantastical.

    Sinn contrasts this with nuclear energy, where the most advanced reactors produce relatively small volumes of waste, which needs to be kept secure for tens of thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands of years.

    In further chapters he takes issue with Germany’s penchant for renewable energy, particularly wind turbines and solar photovoltaics. In Germany the feed-in tarrif requires power companies to buy all this energy, and at high prices set by regulation.But wind power is so unreliable and out of synch with consumer demand that its real market value is tiny, and when the wind blows at the wrong time power companies often have to pay other countries to take it. Meanwhile, photovoltaics produce minuscule amounts of energy for the billions of euros of subsidy poured into them annually. A country that relied on these sources for its electricity would have a substandard system that could never support a modern industrial economy.

    The irony, as Sinn sees it, is that so much of today’s climate policy is doing nothing tosave the climate. It is severely misdirected. The only way to mitigate climate damage due to fossil fuel consumption is to act directly to keep the fossil fuels in the ground.

    What is especially important about this book is that, even if Sinn’s economic arguments turn out to be wrong, his basic idea still stands. The argument can be set out as a syllogism:

    1. The burning of fossil fuels is a sufficient condition to cause dangerous climate change;

    2. The extraction of fossil fuels is a necessary condition for them to be burnt;

    3. All fossil fuels that are extracted are subsequently burnt.

    4. Hence, the extraction of fossil fuels is also a sufficient condition for them to be burnt.

    5. THEREFORE: The extraction of fossil fuels is both a necessary and a sufficient condition to cause dangerous climate change.

    In other words, we will only arrest climate change if we keep fossil fuels in the ground, or at least control their rate of extraction to suit what the climate can manage.Regardless of what we think of the effect, on global fossil fuel demand, of OECD countries reducing their own demand, arresting climate change is guaranteed if we act directly and successfully to keep fossil fuels in the ground. It would seem sensible, then, to direct all our policy efforts toward this goal. This is the challenge Sinn leaves us with.