Sprats and mackerels

Are poverty alleviation and human rights work worth the carbon cost?

Just back from a return visit to Sierra Leone. I was working once again with MAPCO, the indigenous organisation engaged in poverty alleviation and human rights work that I spent time with in March. This time, I was helping them develop efficient monitoring and evaluation systems, to better enable them to track the impact of their work.

This feels like good and valuable work. And yet, how does this kind of activity sit with the whole carbon crisis? I pondered this on the flight out, while pouring over Mark Lynas’ excellent piece on the protest camp at Heathrow (In fact, when I had first seen the dates of my trip to Sierra Leone, I had been excited at the prospect of spending time at the camp. However, the more I read about the camp, the more difficult I realised it could be to move freely in and out – so, having signed a contract for the work, I prioritised the trip).

I have far more questions than answers on this whole question. Work like that I was up to in Sierra Leone is about building the capacity of pro-poor organisations and helping them develop tools for promoting the economic wellbeing and resilience of the poor through small enterprise development. I am one of many to have made a career out of this kind of work.

In addition, I am one of a number of people from within the global ecovillage family to have created a sustainability curriculum drawn from ecovillage experience – what we have called the Ecovillage Design Education (EDE). This training programme, that has been embraced by UNESCO as part of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, transfers life skills that will be of the essence as we head down the energy descent curve.

At present, the core EDE faculty finds itself doing a fair amount of international travel as we build the capacity of trainers in different places to deliver this educational programme. ‘Using a sprat to catch a mackerel’ is the analogy I have heard used to justify the use of carbon in this way to leverage a greater long-term benefit.

The issue of air travel poses a major dilemma to the ecovillage movement as a whole – certainly to the Findhorn ecovillage. On the one hand, a significant portion of our income derives from participants coming on our courses. The proportion of those coming from the UK has risen steadily over the years and now stands at about 50 percent. Sill, a good number of those continue to come through Inverness airport.

The sprat-mackerel analogy, however, still holds good here; many leave transformed, refreshed and better equipped to get stuck into good community development work of many shades and varieties when they get back home.

On the other hand, we are a highly international community. At any one time, between 15 and 25 nationalities are represented in our resident community. This generates a lot of what George Monbiot has memorably called ‘love miles’ – travel to meet up with friends and family on other continents. My wife is a New Yorker – I understand the dilemma.

The Findhorn community’s ecological footprint analysis gave us record low scores on most consumption categories (food 32 percent of the national average, home and heating 21 percent, car mileage six percent and so on). In one category alone, air travel, did we exceed the national average – by a factor of two and a half.

It is clear that government policy needs to change: a halt to new airport development; removal of taxes on aviation fuel and other externalities associated with flying; inclusion of air travel emissions in greenhouse gas emissions targets. Our top priority needs to be campaigns towards these ends. The time is rapidly approaching for us to decide where we want to call home and to sink our roots there.

In the meantime, as we effectively use our sprats to catch mackerels, is there not a case for continuing to undertake strategic international work – made possible by air travel – to strengthen the capacity, spread the skills and build the networks we will all need in the low-carbon world that is opening up before us?

The world of business shows little inclination to restrain its appetite for air travel. In this context, should those of us engaged in sustainability and global justice work unilaterally forgo the many advantages that continuing (at least in the short-term) access to air travel provides?

As I said at the beginning, more questions than answers.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.