Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy! Stop the sooty show

An unfortunate orthodoxy has developed on climate change, the main elements of which are: 1) climate change is the fault of the rich nations and the capitalist system; 2) the rich nations should cut their carbon emissions drastically and compensate poor countries for all the impacts of climate change; 3) poor countries have an absolute right to develop by increasing their emissions; 4) carbon trading and offsets are a new form of global colonialism in which rich countries dump their waste carbon and make the poor pay for it.

This orthodoxy is riddled with contradictions. Many "rich" countries are near bankrupt, while many of the "poor" ones are awash with cash. This is one reason the Copenhagen conference last December failed. Deeply indebted "rich" countries are not about to make even deeper cuts in social spending, to hand over billions to "poor" countries whose emissions are soaring, and which may even be their creditors.

The final declaration of the recent climate summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia, was a fine exposition of the orthodoxy: it demanded that developed countries "honour their climate debt in all of its dimensions", "decolonise the atmosphere", "assume the costs and technology transfer needs of developing countries", "deal with damages arising from their excessive emissions" and open their borders to "hundreds of millions" of climate migrants.

But, in putting the blame entirely on "rich" countries, the orthodoxy misses a key component of the climate crisis - one in which poor countries are mainly responsible. Carbon is more than just carbon dioxide (CO2). It is also "black carbon", or soot, which plays a huge role in climate change - both warming the atmosphere and accelerating the melting of glaciers and snowfields from the Andes to the Arctic.

Soot warms by darkening the air and surfaces it lands on, such as snow and ice, so that more of the sun's heat is absorbed. A single tonne of soot causes, over its typical two-week residence, the same warming as 1,600 tonnes of CO2 in 20 years. The warming caused by soot is over half again as much as that caused by CO2.

The biggest source of soot, at 41 per cent, is the open burning of biomass from the clearance of pastures, forests and farmland. Next are wood- and coal-burning domestic stoves, at 26 per cent. Transport-sector emissions follow, with 19 per cent, mainly from smoky diesel and two-stroke engines. Industry weighs in at just 8 per cent.

And the top three soot emitters are . . . Asia, Africa and Latin America, with 6.6 megatonnes per year between them. The US, Canada, Europe and the former USSR collectively emit just 1.3 megatonnes (2000 figures). The highest per-capita soot emissions take place in Latin America, at more than 2.5kg per person, closely followed by Africa. That's equivalent to four tonnes of CO2 over 20 years.

So what's the answer? First, scrap the orthodoxy. Not only does it encapsulate a way of thinking that is certain to block any international climate agreement - it's also plain wrong. Next, introduce a co-operative interpretation of the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities", which underpins the 1992 UN climate convention - in which poor countries as well as rich contribute to climate solutions. And make the reduction of soot emissions a top global priority - one that will deliver substantial and immediate benefits for our climate, as well as improve human health.

Mark Lynas is away until August.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.