The dog that turned green

Communities in Scotland and Brazil raise questions about carbon trading

I have just watched an excellent movie called The Carbon Connection. The film focuses on two communities, in Scotland and Brazil, which find themselves on opposite sides of a carbon trade deal.


The town of Grangemouth near Glasgow lives cheek by jowl with a huge BP refinery, that has bought the right to continue polluting by buying carbon credits through the planting of eucalyptus stands in Brazil.

The scale of the pollution in Grangemouth is scarcely imaginable given the proximity of the human population. The fumes are so bad and mysterious that one of those interviewed said her dog even occasionally turned green!

Meanwhile, in Brazil, the principal impact of the thirsty eucalyptus stands as far as local people are concerned is to dramatically lower the water table, emptying their wells and killing the plants on which they depend.

The two communities are taught how to use hand-held cameras and the film records their stories, the films they make to send to each other. It is profoundly moving to see communities talk to each other rather than through the distorting lens of the global media and so deeply to empathise with each other’s plight. Both communities thought their situation serious until they saw the problems faced by the other.

So, what has this to do with a column called ‘Life at Findhorn’? Its relevance derives from a debate happening within Findhorn and indeed the wider ecovillage movement over the concept of carbon credits.

On watching The Carbon Connection, one might come out thinking – "well that’s it then, carbon trading is simply a bad thing, end of story". But it is not that simple. In truth, there are many carbon trade initiatives that deliver solid and tangible benefits to communities – and ecovillages have great potential to be vehicles for just such transactions.

Ecovillages in Senegal, for example, are being funded to replant their mangrove forests and to introduce solar cookers. Now, as it happens, this work is not being funded through carbon trading, but it perfectly easily could be.

We could easily set up a mechanism whereby, for example, participants at the Positive Energy conference (www.findhorn.org/positiveenergy) we are organising here in Findhorn at Easter – who collectively will generate a fair amount of CO2 getting here – could be invited to make donations to fund such work in Senegal, or indeed in our own tree-planting or renewable energy programmes.

Perhaps, as seems so often to be the case, the key question is that of scale. Perhaps community-to-community, ecovillage-to-ecovillage schemes of this sort could work in ways that are life-and-Earth-affirming, enabling those of us who are heavy carbon consumers make the transition to a low-impact lifestyle while transferring resources in helpful ways to the global south?

Or are the dangers of muddying the message too great? If we say, "well, some carbon trading can be OK", will not the corporate spin-doctors respond in much the same way as they did with climate change denial – sowing the seeds of confusion as a smokescreen to permit business as usual? Especially so given that the great majority of carbon trading today is on a huge scale and probably resembles much more closely the BP/Brazil trade than the ecovillage model.

Can we run the risk of diluting the core message that we all need to dramatically reduce our carbon consumption as soon as possible?

Should we waste this opportunity to tie our gradual energy descent into the transfer of resources to sister communities across the south?

This is a live and open debate. We rejoin it at the Positive Energy conference. Why not consider joining us? – there are still some places available.

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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump