How’re Those Resolutions Going?

Wehey! We’re a month into 2016, is it looking bright? Did all your Januarys stay dry? Are you holding strong at the top of your Fit Bit leaderboard? If so, congratulations, cos you’re staying strong through the hardest part of the year – the bit where the joys of Christmas like mince pies and mulled wine have been culturally removed from us, but the mornings are still as dark and drizzly as Robert Plant’s cover of Hey Joe.

Environmentally we’ve been off to a hell of a start, with an almost immediate go-ahead to build on last-year’s governmental damnation of bees, which makes as little sense now as it did last summer. But moreover, ‘we’ as a nation made some big pledges last year before Christmas, as all those other countries made huge pledges at COP21 to reduce emissions and phase out fossil fuels. It even looked like we had hope with that, as just before COP21 the UK declared that we would be the first nation to completely phase out coal – by 2025. Now, that does come with the small print that we’ll just exploit natural gas more to fill the power-void, but nevertheless that’s a big and pride-worthy commitment.

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Well, it was barely even a month after COP21 that we were fighting plans to open a Six Million Tonne COAL mine in beautiful rural Wales. There’s an on-going war around Fracking (see here if you’re a proposed site), and the fossil fuels industry has been granted £1.3Billion in tax-breaks.

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So if you’ve succumbed to temptation and had a glass of Pinot, if you’ve not had quite the handle on your road-rage you’d hoped for, don’t worry, you could be doing worse. For our government, those resolutions have not been going well.

Happily, there’s plenty of things you can get on doing to make this world a better place, things you can commit to and really will enjoy committing to. I’m still cutting about on my One Man Climate March, I’ve made you a whole list of little things in Your Save-The-World Starter Pack, but there’s something really big on the horizon, and that’s Break Free 2016.

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The gist of Break Free is to take charge of your own life, and your planet. It still baffles me why the corporate giants of the fossil fuel world – the ones with all the money and nicely established infrastructure – are choosing not to help us transition to renewables. They could use their money and power and influence and manpower to create really awesome renewable technologies, get in there ahead of these independent startups, and totally rule that industry too – but they’re not, so this is how it’s going to have to be.

Whatever start your 2016’s got off to, this is going to be a big year.

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We Go Now Live To The Historic Battlefront…

Where just last week what has been hailed as one of the most monumental global agreements in history was made… but we maybe can’t relax just yet.

COP 21 is now concluded &, it would seem, the fate of our planet decided. By and large, people seem happy that we have achieved what was set out to do: To agree to a less than 2ºC temperature rise (above pre-industrial levels), by reducing our emissions, phasing out fossil fuels, wealthy, developed nations giving $100Billion to developing nations by 2020 to help them do that, and the nice establishment of a 5-year-review where everyone can get together to see how we’re doing. Hurrah!

Main-stream media seems very happy with it all. Politicians seem very happy with it all. Even 50% of the organisers of the Global Climate MarchAvaaz.org – seem happy, saying in a recent email to members that “We did it!… World leaders at the UN climate talks have just set a landmark goal that can save everything we love!
The other 50% of the GCM organisers, 350.org, seem somewhat less thrilled by the result of these talks:

And I think quite rightly so because, as much as it may be great to make this deal and have the world on board… it is still a slightly inadequate deal – mostly in the gross lack of actual targets, and that none of it is legally binding – and there’s still a huge amount of work to be done. The simple fact that the UN have agreed and produced a very vague document about it doesn’t mean that the rest of us can turn to each other and say “Wehey, that’s that then!” dust off our hands and clock-off.

For the last year, momentum has been building up for this to be huge. We knew it was going to be tough, but there was the hope that, with sufficient preparation, the world would be able to pull something together that was appreciably ambitious. Though even Barack Obama is noted as having optimistically called the very notion of agreement ‘ambitious‘. Throughout all that there was hope, and with this hope I (and countless others) watched COP21 unfold, as they steadily drafted out reems of proposals, identified disagreements and sought remedies. But, thanks to The Guardian’s live feed of the events, I was able to pinpoint the moment when the wind was taken from my sails, and the vectors of my face & palm converged…

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It was the moment the actual targets were removed from the draft. The moment apathy set in, and the points of contention – like how much reductions we were going to commit to, or by when – were, instead of decided upon, simply removed and left as fluff. I know scientists who say this is a good thing, that if we had a target of, say, 50% reduction it’d be interpreted as an excuse to still emit a full 50%… but I honestly disagree. Do we really think such lenience won’t be taken advantage of? It’s like choosing not to say to your child “You can have only have half of this chocolate bar” because you think they’ll only have 2 squares if you keep schtup.
And to make it worse, this is all voluntary anyway. No countries are under any obligation to actually do anything! At least they all agree now that something has to be done.

Of course, such dissatisfaction can be taken too far, and this is where my sympathy for activists breaks down. While it’s important that The People exercise their power, certain types of activism do ring with a bit of small-man syndrome, disguised as disestablishmentarianism. For example, I don’t agree with the message in this video by New Internationalist that the only way forward is to take the power from the hands of the corporations.

Like it or not, corporations pretty much are the developed world. They are huge, almightily powerful and influential – even to our governments. It’s something I’ve been discussing with students over my One Man Climate March – we need the phasing-out of fossil fuels but by investment in something else. Do you think we could continue to function if we just cut out all fossil fuels right now? No, absolutely not as our way of life – that we all fight for and, to certain extents, deserve – depend on that too much. Similarly, our society is made and managed by corporations; we can’t get rid of them. What we DO need to do is to help/incense corporations to change the ways they do what they do, to make the world a better place. As we know, they have huge amounts of power and money; they are better equipped than any of us impoverished eco-warriors to change the world right now.
In light of COP21, the head of Europe’s coal lobby spat his dummy out and declared that the coal industry is going to be ‘hated and vilified like slave-traders‘ now.
(“Well, Duh?” was my first thought on that)
But I seriously do wonder why these companies – who currently supply our power through one means or another – don’t just commit to continuing to do so in a cleaner way! We, the customers, don’t necessarily love them because they give us coal, it’s because ultimately they power our homes. And if they complain about loss-of-jobs – what, you think wind-turbines just grow on trees? Or couldn’t stand any improvements?? It’s a lucrative sector, get in there!

I was happy that, smack in the middle of COP21, a huge forum was also held – 2 whole days devoted to presenting sustainable solutions – the 6th Sustainable Innovation Forum. Check out their YouTube channel for what they talked about. Unfortunately this year this became a target of anti-corporate activism, and now there’s great contention around how much elements of this forum can be classified as ‘greenwashing’ for big corporations. So that bit was kind of a mess.

But, ambitious as myself and my eco-peers may be, it’s still apparently very difficult to change the world. I mean, yes, it very much is, but that’s no reason not to try. There’s huge things to consider, almost infinite ramifications of our actions, and always more people & livelihoods to consider, but the answers are out there. But still, here’s a clip of David Cameron practising telling his grand-children that it was just too difficult:

“…No-one is being asked to pre-ordain what that [5-yearly] review would say…
No-one is being asked to sign-up for automatic decreases in their carbon emissions…” 
Mr Cameron says in this pre-COP speech.

Umm, YES, Mr Cameron, that’s almost exactly – word-for-word – what we were asking you to do.

But apparently it is difficult. Apparently it is going to be a hard-slog to kick this habit – but no-one (apart from Mr Cameron there) ever said it was going to be easy. The closest thing any expert has ever got to saying it’ll be easy, is saying it’s going to be easier now than it will in the future. And we’re all going to have to pitch-in.

So that’s what I implore of you all. This is a very big issue, and we have some very big opinions on it. We have some very big hinderances to our efforts, but biggest of all is just our griping about it. Please, can we just get over ourselves and get on with the task in hand. Focus on how to make the world better, and DO SOMETHING about it, rather than distracting yourself on how it’ll be hard, or miserable, because if you do, you’ll be right.

A year ago Prince Ea released this beautiful video that, I think (hope), had the same intended message behind it as Mr Cameron’s before the UN. But from Prince Ea it was much better delivered, and is still resoundingly true today.

And if you don’t think enough has been done… if you want something to do… Then follow Prince Ea’s advice, offset your carbon with Stand For Trees, or with Saving Species. Take pride in the world that you are a part of, and consume less, eat less meat – particularly beef. Help prevent fracking. Share happiness and unity and pride and hope and empowerment. Let this impact your life now so that it will impact others less – and less badly – in the future. Act in such ways that you can take pride in the impact that your life has on this world. And if you ever think that not enough is being done, that is your opportunity to do something more.

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Making Progess

COP21 is nearing an end, and only time will tell if the leaders of the world are going to take this climate change thing seriously, and change the fate of our planet.

It’s weird, humanity has never had a challenge quite like this before, and I don’t think we really know what to do with it. We’ve spent the last few millennia fighting tooth-and-claw-and-brain for a chance at life, the last few thousand years mostly just trying to get-by and survive, and the last few hundred years in a fit of ‘progress’ making lives easier, our homes/jobs more comfortable, and our world smaller. Throughout that time, we’ve always had definitive obstacles to be overcome, the enemies we vanquished always had a face, and fights had a clear beginning and end. Victors and victims were quite easy to discriminate.

Now we’re at this stage in our evolution where we’re actually able to look at ourselves analytically. We see ourselves as superior to all creation yet can also observe ourselves as having barely dragged ourselves from the primordial ooze we so sneer at and, through ‘progress’, have sought to vanquish. We are the only known beings for 13.8 Billion light-years in any direction that possess the ability to comprehend responsibility. What seems difficult is accepting that we are evolved enough to accept that responsibility.

It’s like fighting for the best seat on a plane, only to realise that the one with the best view has to fly the damned thing, and you’ve already taken off.

Now we’re at this crucial point – deciding whether or not we’re going to grip the controls and have to concentrate for a bit, or keep using the steering column as a foot-rest, collectively watching the on-coming mountainside and thinking “Well this is going to be shit.” I’m not sure that’s the best metaphor for COP21, but I’ve not heard a better one.

The Guardian are doing a huge amount in publicising the future of our planet, and focusing energy on COP21. Their “Keep It In The Ground” campaign is having some huge impacts, and they’re appealing to some major world players to make the world a better place. Fundamentally that campaign is rooted in hastily phasing out fossil fuels. But what would happen if we did that?

We – developed human civilisation – are addicted to fossil fuels in a similar way to how so many are addicted to smoking cigarettes. The burning of fossil fuels gives us so much, and we’ve had the power generated from doing that for so long it’s become a fundamental expectation of our lives. We would not accept a society that took those things – technological comforts, magically simple communications, ready food supplies etc. – away from us. But note that it’s not the burning fuels we’re addicted to; it’s what that facilitates. It’s not burning cigarettes that people become addicted to, it’s the way doing that makes them feel. And if you want to change people’s behaviour you can’t simply take away something that gives them pleasure – you have to find out what they already love, and give them more of that (in a better way).

So… and dare I say this… The Guardian are on the right lines, but it’s not quite enough. “Keep It In The Ground” is only half the battle. And it’s the half that, if it were so simple, would never succeed.  Because if you were given the option of:

Your life as it is      –     OR     –     Keep it all in the ground

You’d understandably pick the former, even if it killed you.

And so I propose some satisfaction to the chasm left by simply keeping our source of civilisation in the ground: “Look To The Sky“.

The solution to a problem, and the resolution to the conflict.

The solution to a problem, and the resolution to the conflict.

By “Look To The Sky” I’m simply including the new line of progress that is the investment in Sun, Wind & Water – those renewables that we have in abundance. The technology is coming on in ever-greater leaps and bounds, and realistically we are faced with a similar pressure to our lives as we’ve felt in every major war of the last century – when we’ve made our other biggest technological advances.

I’m not saying that “Keep It In The Ground” doesn’t include the importance of renewables – it does in abundance in the full campaign, just not in the tagline. It’s also nicely straight-to-the-point in what we want to happen with fossil fuels. It’s simple.

People change most profoundly though when given something better to do – “More of Better” is a bigger driving factor of our behaviour than “Less of worse”. And looking forward, “More of Better” is where our attention needs to be. It’s running to the light at the end of the tunnel, not fleeing the darkness behind. So that’s what I’m asking you to do; when you’re wondering what to do with the world, just #LookToTheSky.

We Marched Through London & I Met Bill Oddie

Humanity is at a pivotal point in our history. The Earth, including all known life in the universe, is at a similarly pivotal point as a result. Attention-hungry as all the petty human conflicts right now may be, I’m actually talking about climate change and the COP 21 conference of world-leaders that’s going on right now. That’s a big deal, and last Sunday as many as 70,000 people took to the streets of London to show quite how big a deal we think it is.

One of the things I loved most about the London Global Climate March was the unity that came in the throngs of slightly rain-dampened people – all 70,000 of them in London, and all 785,000 around the world. All there for a common cause, and a common good. All there to show that they’re willing to stand up to protect our world, and show our leaders that we’re willing to support an encourage them in making this world a better place.

And that nice element of ‘support’ is remarkable, as there was also a very strong trend among the speakers & public that the last twenty COP conferences have been… somewhat unsatisfactory. We were reminded at the finish line by three inspirational young girls from Children Against Global Warming that so far, in supposedly getting together to tackle the biggest threat ever faced by mankind, the world’s leaders have accomplished “NOTHING”. So in short – these people who give a shit about the future of the planet, they’re nice, forgiving people.

But a huge highlight of the march for me was meeting the great Bill Oddie. Apart from being an all-round wildlife-lover & enthusiast, Bill is probably best-known for bi-annually enthralling the British public with our own wonderful wildlife via Spring Watch and Autumn Watch. I can also report that he’s one of the most lovely people there’s ever been.

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We ended up chatting for a good half-an-hour about what a great event this was, and his years of both entertaining and inspiring the British public. Throughout his career Bill’s become established as somewhat of an expert on wildlife, and so it was great to be standing with him as we addressed our world leaders. An over-riding theme of the day that developed was the notion that, for quite some time now, our leaders have taken the environment somewhat for granted, and failed to represent the voices of the masses and the real experts.

“The principle to me,” Bill told me, “that really really matters, is that the politicians and the people who make the policies – in cahoots with big businesses etc. etc. – have got to start accepting that they don’t necessarily know best.”

Furthermore, he described the long-standing trend in environmental policy from our government in this country to be filled with “Great Ignorance and Arrogance”.

The attitude of the march was not one of fear, but of faith. Though at the same time, I think everyone there would have called themselves a realist as we all appreciated that the world is in danger, and things could still go very very wrong. We were there to support our world leaders, but couldn’t go without remembering that they have let us down so far… so it was with a modicum of fear in our hearts we were asking them not to do that again.

Bill was warily optimistic of the outcome of this COP21, stating “The tragic thing, if you can imagine all of these politicians getting together over the net couple of days…  if they can look at marches like this, gatherings like this, protests like this… if they can dismiss those, then we really are in big trouble.”

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Could they dismiss this?

But almost worryingly, this march has received very little by way of media coverage – though that’s even from The Guardian, and they organised the event! And sadly that’s despite a remarkably good speech from Jeremy Corbyn, and some wonderful words from Francesca Martinez – this event transcended your standard shouty activism.

Unfortunately most of the coverage of the Global March was focussed around the failed Paris March, at which those who gathered were forcibly removed/arrested – due to the recent, terror-induced ban on demonstrations in the city. Nicely that event has now been replaced by a vigil of shoes to commemorate the lost march, but we’re still waiting to see if the waves of change that were hoped from this event will amount to any more than ripples of disappointment.

Whether you were there at a Global March or not, you have not spent your chance to get involved with the COP21 conference & change the future of the planet. You can still put into action, in your own life, the changes that are being called for – to divest from fossil fuels, support renewables, eat less meat & generally practise compassion and consideration. Directly show your support by Tweeting your leader. And me, I’m off on my own, One Man Climate March.

INTERVIEW with Prof. Stuart Pimm of SavingSpecies

I recently published a post stating that, to adequately offset the carbon emissions, a flight to Mallorca ought to cost £4,000,000. Now it turns out – and I’m happy to say that – I was wrong… by about one million times! I won’t hide my original error – see it here – but this is very much a retraction. Being wrong every now & then is a wonderful and fundamental part of science.

My error came in a simple assumption I made about the organisation Saving Species, with whom I encourage you to offset your carbon. I made an ass out of u-&-me be by thinking that the 30-year leases with which they operate were a necessary duration of the sequestration process, when in reality, they’re not. Their system is actually as brilliant and efficient as it seems.

Now the best thing that has come about from this misguided error is that it put me in touch with Stuart Pimm, the founder of SavingSpecies – he happily corrected my math and I found myself with the opportunity to interview one of the most go-getting and innovative conservationists working today.

Beyond Stuart’s credentials as founder of SavingSpecies – through which he has helped save a number of charismatic species from extinction, discovered a number more, and aided the mitigation of global emissions and facilitated reforestation – Stuart has worked as a consultant on An Inconvenient Truth and appeared in 11th hour – two of the most impactful films on climate change ever made. He is also a teaching Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, who introduce him as “a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what can be done to prevent them.”

This is someone I was excited to talk to.

There’s a brilliant article that Stuart wrote for the British Ecological Society about the birth of Saving Species, in which he applied island-theory to forest fragmentation in Brazil and managed to convert cattle-pasture into rejuvenated forest thereby saving the Golden Lion Tamarin from extinction. It’s a beautiful story. However, when I sat down to interview him over skype, we were both keen to crack-on chatting about the way that things are now, and how unbelievably easy and affordable it is to do your part to offset carbon and save the world:


 

“…Not everybody finds it easy to do this, but the remarkable thing is how little it costs to offset carbon. There’s a new movie coming out, it’ll be shown worldwide on the Discovery Channel on the 2nd December, by a chap called Louie Psihoyos, called Racing Extinction. Louis said he’d like to offset his carbon, and he tried to do loads of complicated calculations. I said “Just tell me how many millions of miles you flew, how many thousands of miles you drove, how many days were you in the studio with electricity.” And we came up with a number. He said “Is that all?!” and I said “Yeah, that’s all.” So he ended up giving us more money than that, as he just felt embarrassed that it was such a small sum of money.

It basically costs, probably about £40 or £50 a year to offset an average American emissions – even if you, like me, travel a huge amount.

It’s probably an obvious question but, why don’t we do this more if it’s so easy?

 Well, I really think that’s a good question, and I wish I had a better answer.

You really can do things in places that make a difference, and more really importantly, you can do it by funding people who make a difference. I basically founded SavingSpecies because I was very unhappy with the way that big conservation groups were doing things. Because they weren’t supporting the wonderful people who I meet in places like Columbia and Ecuador and Peru and Brazil and Madagascar – really passionate local people who are just good at taking care of their local problems. I just felt that we needed to have a mechanism for funding them.

The model is inspirational. One of the things I really admire about it is the way that it’s a fantastic bridge between that abstract, relatively dull enemy that is climate change & carbon, and brilliantly tangible conservation victories – like Golden Lion Tamarins, which are adorable. So, along those lines, what other tangible conservation victories are you really proud of?

Well obviously that was the first one and we’re very proud of that. We did that in a couple of ways – we didn’t pick that area because it was the Golden Lion Tamarins, we picked that area because we thought it was probably the most important place for birds. If you’re picking areas that are really rich in endangered birds then they’re going to have endangered mammals, endangered plants, endangered amphibians, so that all made good sense.

One of the things that happens when you have these isolated patches is you lose the top predators. And when you lose the top predators, all sorts of bad things happen underneath. So, Britain has lost it’s wolves, and with lots of wolves we now have plagues of red deer all across the highlands keeping the forest down. So you get all these knock-down, cascading effects.

One of the things that happened much earlier than we thought it might, is that mountain lions – Pumas – started moving across the corridor. Mountain lions came back into the isolated fragment, from which they’d been gone for a while. There’s a smaller predator called a Tayra – it’s sort of a big weasel – and it does an enormous amount of harm to birds, and to the Tamarins. And when the Pumas came back they beat the hell out of the Tayras, and so they keep the Tayra numbers down and so the Tamarins and the birds come back. So there were some really good knock-on ecological changes.

The next project we did was one in Columbia – it’s in the western Andes of Columbia, another area with exceptional numbers of species. It was an area of about 1000 square kilometres – a hundred thousand hectares – and it was about to become isolated by deforestation coming up valleys and pinching it off from the forest elsewhere in the western Andes. So we’ve been reforesting that, and it’s a place of incredible biological diversity. A couple of years ago a couple of friends of mine, including one here in North Carolina, discovered a new mammal – a new species of mammal, called the Olinguito. And the photograph of this baby Olinguito being held by somebody that went viral – well that somebody was one of our grantees. So as soon as we heard of it we thought, “well, we’re in the right kind of habitat” so we went out and we found the Olinguito.

THE baby Olinguito; the new species of mammal first described in 2013.

THE baby Olinguito; the new species of mammal first described in 2013.

So here’s a newly discovered mammal – it’d basically been overlooked. It’s not desperately rare but, on the other hand, if it were common we would have known about it a long time ago. So that’s sort of the poster-child of that particular project. But again we picked that project because it’s got spectacular numbers of orchids, there’s a new species of Dracula Orchid – I just love Dracula Orchids. I mean you love the name but they get the name because they’re bizarre-looking and they’re black and purple. We found a few years ago a new species of Poison Dart Frog, a glorious red and black one, so this is a place where you can go and still discover new species.

So where have you got your sights set on next?

We’re just about to fund two projects, one of them is in Ecuador, the lowland coastal forest in Ecuador again is an area of exceptional biological diversity, and it’s been very badly beaten and deforested. We’re funding a great local Ecuadorian organisation. There are two existing reserves – one in forest at about 2000m, one in forest that’s near sea-level – and we’re helping them buy and restore the intervening forest. So again we can create a large area of forest. The main interests there are that there are a bunch of frogs that are found nowhere else, and I rather suspect it’s a place with a lot of interesting bird species as well. I went over this year for about a week and added a lot of bird species to their list that they had not seen, and this was not an area where I am an expert. It’s got some interesting mammals, it’s got ocelots and things like that.

And then the other project that we’re going to fund any day, is a project in Brazil. It’s in the San Paulo state, a bit further to the south of the first project we did on the Golden Lion Tamarinds, and it involves the Black Lion Tamarin – a different species. But again it’s a fantastic group of local people who are working with the local communities to involve them in the restoration and in caring for their local environment.

That’s absolutely brilliant. So in your experience as a conservationist, what’ve you found to be the biggest challenges to conservation? And what are the best ways – in your opinion – to overcome them?

Conservation is like politics – it’s all local. You’ve got to engage local people. You know, people destroy forests, they destroy big predators like Lions because they threaten them; the first thing you have to do is understand why people do that. And the second thing is you have to work with them to find them an alternative future that’s not so damaging. And you can’t do that sitting in an air-conditioned office, inside the Washington DC beltway. You’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to engage with local people. So the reason we founded SavingSpecies is we wanted to empower local conservation. We wanted to empower people who you’ve never heard of in Madagascar and Columbia and Ecuador and other parts of the world where local people were doing a really great job, they’re part of the local community, they send their kids to the local schools, they’re hiring people from the local villages.

There’s a book by an economist called Jeffrey Sax, it’s called ‘The End Of Poverty.’ He asks why has developmental aid failed in Africa? He says if you look at the amount of money that’s been given to Africa for development by the US, the EU, it all only ever amounts to a few dollars per African. And the second thing is that 90% of it is spent on consultants who never go anywhere near the problem. I’ve always thought that to be a very perceptive remark. One of the tragedies that I see, working in Africa, is I often go to villages where I see small children who are probably not going to live more than a few days because they’ve got malaria. Now, what does it cost to stop malaria? It costs a couple of dollars for a bed-net. A million children a year should not die of malaria. But it’s not the amount of money, it’s the difficulty of getting that aid – those bed-nets – to the places that matter. Some of that is that you’ve actually got to go there, you’ve got to turn up and get into those villages. Some organisations do that well and some organisations never get their feet wet. It’s exactly the same with conservation.

That makes an awful lot of sense. So, talking politics and conservation, and how they may or may-not get on; in a few weeks there’s COP 21. A lot of noise is being made about that. What would you really like to see come out of it? What do you think people need?

Obviously the meeting in Copenhagen a few years back was an unmitigated disaster. I do think there’s a chance for some very serious commitments being made in Paris, and that is the sort of thing where it’s important that the politicians make those commitments. How we implement those commitments is clearly going to involve some very large-scale changes. I mean, the United States spends a staggering amount of our tax money on the military. The reason we Americans went to war in Iraq — with your nice Mr Blair— was not because their principle export was broccoli. We went because we wanted the oil. Well, the moment we start getting serious about developing alternative sources, the moment we start saying ‘No we really don’t want to invest in these oil companies’. The moment we get serious about this and the sooner we start moving towards a more sustainable economy the better. I think there could be things that come out of the COP that might move things in those directions.

What I see in China is certainly very aggressively developing wind energy and solar energy. There are some technical solutions. The adoption of solar energy in the US is incredibly poor, and that’s entirely a political solution. The energy companies are fighting alternatives as viciously as they can. Recent disclosures that companies like Exxon have known about global warming for a long time are similarly helping to generate a sense of disgust for these companies for the way they manipulated the political system. And that is something where good political leadership could make a difference.

That’s what we’re all hoping for. And then, what about on the smaller scale- the rest of us ‘normal’ people. What do you think is the best thing that we can do to save the world? Apart from flying less, or giving to SavingSpecies more-

[laughs] Just give to SavingSpecies more!

The reason I’ve been pushing this Saving Species model is to empower people. Far too much of the news is unbelievably depressing. You know, you look at Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, he says ‘species are going extinct 1000 times faster than they should’, you may wonder where did he get that from. He got it from me. There’s a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio called the 11th Hour, I was in that – again, unrelentingly depressing. But there are a lot of things that we can do. And I think it’s that sense that there are things we can do as individuals. We can live more lightly on the landscape, we can eat sustainably harvested fish, we can eat less meat – I’m not vegetarian, but I’m thoughtful about what I eat. I’m careful how many miles I drive each year, I offset my carbon. There are a lot of things we can do as individuals. And when it comes to conservation, there are many good things going on, and we can support that. We can support them with our efforts. We can support them with what is, in fact, a very modest amount of money. I’m sitting outside the university centre here at Duke, looking at students who I am certain probably spend more in Starbucks in a month than they would need to offset their carbon for an entire year.

It seems so breathtakingly small – the amount of effort that we do really need to put in. I think there’s definitely hope there. Once we can get the word out and people change their behaviours just an amazingly little bit.
So, just as a final thing, talk me through quite how Saving Species works. Cos I made some assumptions before that were kind of wrong, so talk me through quite how carbon sequestration works.

So, if you imagine a hectare of land that’s been deforested in a warm, moist country – in Columbia or Brazil or Sierra Leone or the Western Ghats of India, some place where there’s no frosts and it rains on and off for most of the year. You can work out how fast forest grows in a place like that. And you can work out even easier how much forest will be there, because you can go to a nearby patch of forest and look at the trees. You can do this with high-school students. I remember with Bemrose School in Derby, being taught that the volume of a cylinder is πr­2l, so for a tree you measure it’s length and you work out how much wood is in it. From that you can work out it’s weight and how much carbon it contains. Well, those kind of calculations, straightforward as they are, tell you that a hectare of growing forest – forest that’s coming back over an area that used to be a cattle pasture — will soak up somewhere between 5 and 10 tons of carbon each year for about 30 or 40 years. Let’s say an average of 7 tons of carbon per year.

So it’s quite a constant rate then?

In the early days, it keeps on sequestering after that but once it gets to be mature it slows down a bit.

So it’s actually better to have juvenile, growing forest than to have a mature forest?

Well, yeah but you still want to keep the mature forest.

Of course!

But in terms of soaking up the carbon, the first 30, 40 years is going to do most of the work for you. Even in cold, damp places like Britain, the forest comes back. There are places that I knew when I was a kid, hiking around north Derbyshire, around the reservoirs up there that were planted in forest. Those trees 50 years later are now really quite magnificent. They haven’t grown quite as fast as 7 tons of carbon per year but they’ve still sequestered a fair bit of carbon.

So let’s take that 7 tons per hectare per year average. If you wanted to sequester your carbon, for 30 years, you would need to buy 1 hectare of land in the tropics. That will keep you going for the next 30 years. 7 tons this year, the next, the year after that.

You can ask what is the average American’s carbon emissions – we are much more profligate than the average Brit – the average American, as it happens, puts out about 7 tons of carbon a year.

That’s mathematically, wonderfully convenient!

All the US emissions, including houses and industry and cars, planes – total US emissions, works out at about 7 tons per person per year. So what this means is, if I buy a hectare of land, and trees come back onto it, that will keep me going for another 30 years. And of course I probably won’t be around in 30 years time so I’m helping offset some of my kid’s emissions as well. And that’s about what it amounts to.

And so the question is how much does it cost for us to buy a piece of land in Columbia or Ecuador. It’s often less than $1000 a hectare. Sometimes it’s more, and sometimes it costs extra money to do the reforestation, sometimes not. But a very rough estimate, is that you buy up a hectare — two acres — of tropical land and reforest it, and you’ll offset your carbon for 30 years.

Wow. So the land that you buy with Saving Species has a lease of about 30 years?

Well we hope – in fact we require that people keep the forest as a permanently protected area. And a lot of that comes from how we work with the local groups. The project in Brazil, for example, we raised the money, transferred the money to a local conservation organisation, they bought the land, and within 2 or 3 days the land was transferred to the Brazilian Park Service who manage it all. In Columbia, there is a very well-established network of private nature reserves, so that particular area is managed by a registered charity which is also a registered non-profit within the United States called Fundación COLIBRI – it manages that land. The land in Ecuador is being managed by a non-profit organisation there. So we fund these organisations. We pick organisations that have been around for a decade or more, they’re well established, they have a model for remaining on the land and continuing to engage people. So we do our due diligence, and that’s how we make our projects work.

That’s fantastic. It really is very simple as well – it’s a very elegant solution. You must be immensely proud of it.

I am., I’ve had a very successful career as a scientist, but you know what, Science for me has always been a matter of making a difference. And this is making a difference. And it’s making a difference using science to direct what we do so it’s most effective.”

 


I am immensely grateful to Stuart for getting in touch to correct my assumptions first of all, and then for taking the time to talk to me. I’m now even more amazed by the incredible work that he & SavingSpecies are doing, and I can’t implore you enough to offset your carbon with them & support more of this kind of work. You could even follow the lead of Louie Psihoyos, and give them a figure closer to what your gut tells you this should cost, rather than the 2 caramel-macciato’s-worth that it’ll actually set you back.

INTERVIEW with Dr Tim Coles of Operation Wallacea

My biggest personal developments in conservation have come from my time working with Operation Wallacea, which began in Mexico in the summer of 2012. I first met Dr Tim Coles, the founder of Opwall when I joined the video team at HQ at the end of the research season, and happily I must have managed to impress him with a short film I called a ‘trailer’ for their new site in Mexico. Tim is unquestionably experienced in the real-world application of big conservation dreams – in fact one of my favourite things about him is his relentless pursuit of world-changing ambitions that – he claims – don’t even approach the guise of ‘work’ because he enjoys them so much. His sophisticated Oxfordian approach to this not-work has made him & all of his endeavours remarkably successful, bolstered by an environmental philanthropy at heart. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of the OBE that Tim received a mere day or two after we first met.

My most recent adventures with Opwall took me to the heart of Madagascar.

My most recent adventures with Opwall took me to the heart of Madagascar.

Most recently I joined Tim for one of his talks as he travels the country being an ambassador for his brand of conservation science, and we got a few minutes before the students arrived to catch-up in this semi-formal interview:


 

OK so the first thing I’d really like to know – and somehow I don’t think I’ve asked you before – is, how did you start Opwall – where did it come from?

Well it started with a grant from HSBC in Singapore, and they wanted a project that related to wildlife, and I took them a concept of using volunteers to survey remote areas. They funded a feasibility study and we looked at the Wallacea region; that was an obvious place to look as it has so many endemic species and very very few scientists have been there, so effectively if things were going to get lost, that was probably the place they were going to get lost in. So, we came back, wrote the report up – it was fantastically optimistic – and they actually said “Go and do it!” So we then had to learn how to actually bring students, and how to get these projects to work in the field.

So did they approach you, or was it your idea looking for somewhere to go?

It was my idea looking for somewhere to go.

Ah, so where did the idea come from?

Well it’s basically just a look around in Britain – we’ve got more information about our wildlife than anywhere else in the world. And the reason for that is not because we have more scientists, it’s because we have this army of volunteers that go out weekend after weekend, doing everything from click beetles to wintering birds, and producing detailed atlases. And it was really trying to use some of that effort and apply it to the tropics, where they didn’t have that sort of man-power available, to see if we could make a difference.

That makes an awful lot of sense. Did you have a lot of experience working with volunteers before you went into that?

Absolutely not, and that was the problem. Because I could see how we could get the science working well, and how we could get academics out to build projects, and get students to learn from them and so forth, but what we didn’t know was how to attract students. So that took some learning. I thought you’d just put an advert in the paper and lots of people would turn up, but they don’t. It has to be much more active than that.

Yeah it can be a tricky thing to do to appeal to students. So how far has it come? I mean, it’s come an awfully long way, but what are the greatest things that you feel that you’ve achieved with Operation Wallacea in the 18 years that it’s been running now?

Well, firstly making it fairly stable. We had 3000 students out last year, we’re now operating this year in 14 different countries, we’re funding 200 academics, we’ve co-funded 63 PhD students already, it’s clearly working. And the science outputs – 232 papers just from the last few years have come out of this program, including a couple in Nature, and some others in high-profile academic journals. They even used Opwall data at the COP20 meeting in Lima last year – when the Peruvians were asked to produce a dataset that demonstrated the effect of climate change, they used Opwall data. So the science bit’s working very well, and the conservation outputs are beginning to come as well. Remember the whole purpose of this is not just to produce papers for scientists, or a good time for the students in the field, the purpose behind it is to gather data in a form that can then be used in conservation interventions. So we’ve had some significant funding now from the world bank, and the Darwin Initiative and GEF and others that get projects going, and we have some really big projects just in the pipeline now that are just about to come to fruition.

Wonderful. Does that include the Carrageenan farming in Inodnesia? That’s one of the most impressive stories about Opwall that I’ve ever heard you tell, it’s a great, great achievement.
[NOTE: Carrageenan is a very basic component of almost every mass-produced product in the world. Go look at anything in your cupboard – it’s very likely got Carrageenan in it.]

We’re very nearly there now. The problem is, at the moment they’re growing seaweed on ropes around the edge of the island where we’re working. At the moment they get a terrible price for it from the middleman and essentially all they’re doing is growing it, drying it and then shipping it out to the Phillippenes to have the carrageenan extracted. We met a guy who is fantastic at developing plants and processes, he came down and developed a technique for extracting the carrageenan on-site using acids and alkalis. The advantage of that technique is that, firstly, he did it on-site, so then everybody got factory-gate instead of farm-gate prices, but also because the end result of it is an effluent which is NPK fertiliser, and that’s what they’re short of on the island. So he had a process that not only added the value of the process on-site but provided the fertiliser they needed for the island. We proved this at the lab-scale, the hold-up has been getting it proved at the pilot-plant stage, and that’s now happening. It’s currently being built in Sumartra, at a university there. They have funding for 11 full-scale plants, assuming that works, and that’s all going through a group in Indonesia that’s ensuring that anyone who’s granted a licence has to link it to protection of the reefs. Because remember this whole business started because we needed a method of being able to fund the buy-out of fishing licences on a reef to try and reduce fishing effort. So what we don’t want to do is just create a process that’s going to massively help seaweed farmers – that’s fantastic, but the whole purpose is to protect the reefs. And this provides the financial clout than enables you to buy-out the fishing effort.

That’s the phenomenally cool part of it – that everything wins from it. Do you have any other such examples of really tangible conservation victories?

Yes, I think using all the information that we have at these sites and putting it together for some of these carbon-trading schemes. So, for example, in Honduras we’ve just packaged all the information together on the biodiversity, on the carbon-value of the forests, and on the societal impacts. Once that’s verified – that’s the process we’re currently going through – that can then be sold on the open market and it’s worth $3.5 Million per year, for 20 years, so that’s $70Million. That money’s going in to protect the forest, but also primarily to create income for local communities, linked to them protecting their forest.

And that couldn’t happen without students doing the work – impossible.

It’s a brilliant way of doing it; at the core of all this is that we can’t really protect Nature and biodiversity without protecting the people that live alongside it. That’s one of the most fascinating elements of conservation in my opinion, it’s the way to get the most people involved and on it’s side.
That brings me on to something I really want to ask you, and that’s what do you think is the greatest obstacle, the greatest challenge for conservation globally, in general?

Wow, that’s a tricky one isn’t it. Well, I think it’s people not realising this connection between local people needing a financial connection, needing a financial benefit from protecting their forests or their reefs or their species – they’re often very proud of them, but if you can’t feed your family then you’re going to go hunting or you’re going to go fishing, or you’re going to cut down the forest or whatever. And so, I think one of our big successes was in Indonesia, where we tried village contracts. Essentially the whole village agreed there would be no logging, no hunting, no change to the forest boundaries, and in exchange they got investment in businesses. So if they continue protecting the forest, they continue getting the investment; if they stopped doing that, the investment stopped. So there was a very clear connection. Now, we started that in Indonesia as a World Bank project, and it’s now been finished for 7 years, and that forest is still 0% cleared. 7 years on, there’s no reason why they can’t go in there, but there’s a financial incentive for them to not do it.

That’s wonderful. Are you looking at implementing a similar kind of thing elsewhere in the world?

Well that’s essentially what we’re trying to do in the rest of the forests in south-east Sulawesi. We’ve got an application in for that, and of course the Honduras project works exactly the same. People need a financial benefit. If they don’t have that financial benefit you can’t expect them to protect the forest. We didn’t did we – look at what happened in Britain and America – we didn’t do it.

Do you think there’s still a great driving for people in Britain to conserve the natural world or have we gone too far into being disconnected from it?

No I think there’s a massive drive here for people to protect their environment and to want to help on stuff like this. It’s just getting the message out and knowing that it is possible to go out there and do this sort of thing, and make a difference.

Brilliant. Something that we’re coming up to in a couple of weeks is COP21. What would you most like to see come out of that? What does the world need most of all to come out of people getting together and deciding how we’re going to save the planet?

Well, pretty well what’ve I’ve said before really. I’d like them to see this relationship between communities in poor, rural areas having a financial benefit from protecting their biodiversity.

How about in first-world applications, in terms of divesting from fossil-fuels and making people see that that is actually a very tangible, a very financially-beneficial way to go. How easy is it to get people to change their ways if you give them a financial alternative? Is there a lot of habit?

Well quite often they would actually like to protect their own forests, they’re proud of them, it’s just that they don’t have the financial incentives or even means to do that. So often you’re pushing at an open door. When we did this thing with the Indonesian villages, the biggest problem wasn’t getting them to accept it, the biggest problem was when I’d go to a village and they’d say “Fantastic, we’ll do that. We’ll stop all of our people logging – and we can stop the guys from the next village cos they’re causing havoc!” And we’d say “No no, please don’t do that” otherwise they’d start a war between villages. We were pushing at an open door, they wanted it, things were very clear for it. And I think you’re going to find that in a lot of places.

 


So there you go – there is hope. I’m very grateful to Tim for this interview, and for giving me such a great start in the world of conservation; something that I hope we will be able to continue for years to come. If you’d like to know more about what Opwall do, or how you can become one of those students that help them make such a difference, visit www.opwall.com.

My One Man Climate March

OMCM1

COP 21 is just around the corner, and to environmentalists, scientists and people who think life on Earth is OK, that’s a big deal. Essentially, our world-leaders are coming together to decide the fate of the world as we know it. Over the 2-weeks build up to COP21, starting on 28th November, everyone else is banding together in a huge global effort called the Global Climate March – in association with 350.org and Avaaz.org – taking to the streets to show support for the world’s leaders in their thousands, and reassuring us that there are a huge number of people out there passionately committed to saving the world.

In the build-up to COP21, I’m doing things a little differently and undertaking my own One Man Climate March. Something that I’ve learned in the last few years of conservation & environmental management is that the world is facing some serious threats right now, and that actually doing what’s needed to be done about that is very very difficult. Saving the world is going to be about a lot more than blustery promises and lower emissions. About a lot more than shouted protests and activism. It can only be done by properly understanding the issues and finding great solutions to them. My One Man Climate March will tell that lesser-known part of the story.

With jungle-grown anecdotes, loop-hole-laden legislation and a strong dose of environmental fanaticism, I’m going to be visiting schools, sharing my experiences and  engaging students in debates all over Nottinghamshire and beyond. And together we’ll be standing with our world-leaders, understanding what needs to be done, and changing the fate of the world.