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“Reading Means Business on Climate Change.”

I did put some thoughts together prompted in part by a chat I had with Tony Pettit, who is a consultant for Reading Council, and whom I met at the above entitled event on January 12th (2012) at Reading University, “Transition Town Reading and London Commuting”,, in reference to the daily commute. In part the article is a simplification of the truth but it does stress the point that similar numbers of workers commute both from the town of Reading to jobs in other locations (mostly London) and into Reading from its environs (again that is mostly London).

As a follow-up, I have been asked to write something about the meeting per se, and as the title might suggest, its intention was to aim toward Reading becoming a low-carbon town (if not zero) by actions involving local businesses, the local authority, and other major local employers, not least its university. Indeed, the University of Reading has, as its new Vice Chancellor, Sir David Bell stressed, signed-up to cut its carbon emissions to the tune of 35% by 2015/2015. This reinforces a statement made by the previous VC, Professor Gordon Marshall: “As leaders in climate science research and mitigation and with responsibilities to show educational leadership, we want to be seen to be acting responsibly to mitigate our own environmental impact. The benefits of this programme will be felt not just in terms of global CO2 emissions impact but on reduced energy costs – a direct and significant benefit to the University.”

Peter Harper, from the Centre for Alternative Technology: spoke next under the title ‘Taking Decarbonisation Seriously: What Would it be Like?’ (summarised below); followed by Dennis Moynihan of the Institute for Sustainability: ‘Towards Low-Carbon Communities: Making the Magic Happen’. Sally Coble from the Environment Agency and Ben Burfoot from RBC both reported on the Reading Climate Change Partnership and the progress made by the Council to date, with the aim to reduce the Town’s carbon emissions by 50% by 2020. Quite a tall order, to be sure!

That said, significant progress has been made, e.g.almost 2000 homes have been insulated through the Heatseekers initiative, 24 businesses have committed to 10:10 (a carbon emission reduction scheme, and there are 24% fewer car trips to the centre of town compared with 2006 (possibly rising fuel prices may have contributed to this). The Council’s current energy generation is over target, mainly from landfill gas, supplies of which will soon be exhausted. There is also a photovoltaic (PV) initiative to be implemented, with a budget of £5 million. The Town’s total carbon emissions were given at almost 1 million tonnes in 2005, but by 2009, this had fallen to just over 800,000 tonnes. This accords to a reduction by 22% which is the best for any unitary borough in the south east. It is often unclear whether such figures refer to elemental carbon or carbon dioxide, and if the latter, should be multiplied by a factor of almost 4.

For me, the set of workshops were the most useful. That said, I am amazed by the lack of awareness of peak oil and its implications. One man said that he couldn’t understand why there was such emphasis on installing trams. As he put it: “A tram is just a bus that only goes one way!” I disabused this line of thinking, informing him that the reason for favouring trams is that they are powered by electricity which can be generated from various different sources (e.g. coal, gas, nuclear, renewables) whereas a conventional bus needs liquid fuels derived from crude oil. There was some fiasco a while back over the claim that some of the Reading bus-fleet ran on ethanol fermented from sugar grown in the UK, whereas in fact it was derived from wood-pulp shipped over from Sweden, rather defeating the object!

The following is a fine distillation of Peter Harper’s talk, “Taking Decarbonisation Seriously”, sent to me from GREN news:
By international standards the UK is doing well and it is important to recognise that small entities, be that the UK or Reading, are significant as exemplars. However, it is deeply worrying that it is thought possible that with concerted international action we could keep warming below 2C which is estimated to give a 75% chance of avoiding the risk of ‘dangerous climate change’ – not very good odds. The UK is currently spending above its fair share of the affordable world carbon budget, especially when emissions elsewhere on our behalf are considered. The CAT emphasise that ‘physics trumps politics’ (‘the Cnut principle’). We must start with physics and adjust the politics and economics to fit. Given the UK’s history of emissions they need to be not just zero carbon but negative carbon to clear a fair space in the budget for developing countries. CAT have drawn up a scheme to achieve this involving alternative technologies but the necessary negative carbon cannot be achieved without lifestyle changes too eg although most people would still travel in cars there would be lower individual ownership. More drastically air miles would need to be cut by 60% – to the level of the 1970s. The large amount of biomass required would change the appearance of the countryside and require a reduction in grazing livestock with knock on effects for diet. The net result would be a shift in the livestock/crop protein ratio from 55:45 to 33:67. It would also mean a better and more secure diet (with fewer imports) and more people in land-based jobs.

Insisting on maintaing the status quo will eventually destroy it. Applying the necessary adjustments will keep as much as possible of the status quo.
The consequences of their scheme are:
Greater energy security as more is produced in the UK
Deal with Peak Oil/Gas
Decarbonising the economy sorts out most other environmental problems as well
High employment
A positive balance of payments
Greater food security (but fewer cows)
Improved diet
Better prospects for our children
This is our chance to make the inevitable transition from seeking ‘more’ to seeking ‘better’. Like our children, there comes a time when the economy has to stop growing bigger and get nicer!

In the conversation with Tony Pettit, it became clear that Reading depends both on its workforce travelling out of the town (principally to London) to their jobs and workers mainly from London travelling into Reading to do jobs here. The vast majority of these daily journeys are made by car, and so in the face of Peak Oil it does seem like a kind of madness to waste fuel both ways round, rather than reskilling the citizens of Reading to do the jobs here, and the same for London. This may be the principal change that will be made in the future, driven most likely by rising fuel prices, and the major means of reducing carbon emissions in Reading. I do wonder, however, once the provision of oil becomes compromised, whether these jobs – particularly of the high-tech variety, in Reading – will exist in ten or twenty years time, and the necessary reskilling should more effectively be made in terms of sustainable employment, such as empowers the building of a strong local economy for Reading.

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