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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves


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I think most people in the environmental movement expected a lot from Copenhagen. The outcome certainly disappointed  nearly every commentator. But what is baffling this morning is the blame game being played out in the pages of the Guardian. On the one hand George Monbiot squarely placed the blame on Barack Obama, the US Senate and the vested interests who pay for senators – and the rest of us who did not protest enough. On the other hand Mark Lynas gives a blow by blow account from inside the room, and points the finger at the Chinese.

In the Monbiot analysis,

Obama went behind the backs of the UN and most of its member states and assembled a coalition of the willing to strike a deal that outraged the rest of the world. This was then presented to poorer nations without negotiation: either they signed it or they lost the adaptation funds required to help them survive the first few decades of climate breakdown.

The British and US governments have blamed the Chinese governmentfor the failure of the talks. It’s true that the Chinese worked hard to mess them up, but Obama also put Beijing in an impossible position.

Lynas bases his report on what he saw in the room and some very specific details such as

The Chinese premier, Wen Jinbao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country’s foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself. The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal, as was the practical implication: several times during the session, the world’s most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his “superiors”.

But, if Monbiot is right and there was a back room deal that was untenable for the Chinese, that response seems understandable. Lynas also seems to pin a lot on the Chinese “lack of civil society” which meant they faced less criticism of their actions at home. Equally plausible, however is that the Chinese in general are less concerned about the planet than they are about their own economic well being. After all, that applies equally to many Canadians – at least those who can be bothered to vote.

Interestingly the Chinese also see economic opportunity – and are rapidly expanding both in solar and wind powered generation.

And then there was the bizarre sight of Gordon Campbell being given an award in Copenhagen by Tzeporah Berman – which I doubt anyone outside of BC noticed or cared about.

It does seem that for all of us, the buck has definitely been passed. We can no longer rely on the politicians – any politicians – to do anything effective. So it is now up to the rest of us to start making changes – in our own lives first, and then in the communities around us. If we want to see change, we have to be the change. They might have built superhighways, but that doesn’t mean we have to drive on them all day and everyday. We can indeed influence markets by our choices, and one of the most effective ways is to simply reduce our consumption. We can close our bank accounts and move our funds to local credit unions – where we can also influence policy discussions, if we are so minded. If we are fortunate enough to have savings we can invest in ethical ventures that support sustainable living rather than just buying a mutual fund that could be invested in anything – but will inevitably include companies like Shell or the big banks unless we make more effort at finding better choices. Getting out of debt will be a very good place to be for nearly everyone, and should be an objective rather than striving for the unattainable, illusory consumer heaven we are proffered every day. But above all we need to look around us at the positive things that are happening all around, that we can join in and support. “Civil society” may have to acknowledge that our efforts to influence public policy are going to be ignored unless we can mount a much more effective mobilisation. There have been small victories – the power plant in the park being the one that comes to mind – so I am not suggesting giving up. But I do think we need some positive reinforcement, as the only satisfaction to be gained from banging one’s head against a brisk wall is that it is so nice when it stops.

Afterthought: thanks to Celia Brauer, there is a much better account of why the conference went wrong on the BBC which looks at a whole range of issues. While it is easy for a columnist to point fingers at a person or country, reality is, as always, much more complex.

And finally: Naomi Klein blames it on Obama for whom no opportunity is too big to blow

Written by Stephen Rees

December 22, 2009 at 1:29 pm

Posted in Environment

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9 Responses

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  1. Yup, the only way to effectuate positive change is to be personally responsible with energy use, attempt to educate those around us to do likewise and continue to engage in the (oft-disconcerting) political system.

    The hard part is watching polluters and moneymakers continue to use in excess and find morally corrupt loopholes to continue to act their own way while we reduce our personal footprints – but who said life is fair?

    Dave O

    December 22, 2009 at 2:47 pm

  2. Many of us could save a lot of energy if only we could get the same type of financial help various governments are offering, in Europe for example. The average family in Europe, Asia, right here) just can’t afford to spend at least $ 50 000 to install lots more insulation, replace doors and windows, appliances, install various types of solar panels, geothermal heating etc.

    Some people will say that the way various levels of the French government, for example, dole out low interest loans and grants is socialism, or even communism, at it worse..BUT all this money is only paid if used to renovate housing (this includes apartments as well as single homes) after 1-an official energy audit and recommendations outlining the scope of work to be done have been made. 2-the work is done by accredited companies and checked by official experts.

    Renovating housing to save as much energy as possible (the ultimate goal is a passive building) is presently creating lots of work.
    When Harper harps that we can’t save the environment if this means loosing jobs here he just don’t get it. Greening our homes and cities can produce jobs..lots of it (done more often than not by small businesses that what upset our old style politicians so much? that thousands of Joe Smith, NOT multinationals, can-could make a living and also save us from possible extinction?)

    Sud Ouest, the major newspaper in the Aquitaine region of France (southwest of France, along an Ocean and just North of a foreign country–just like B.C and the USA–) had an article the other day noting that there are quite a few companies in the region building and installing various types of solar panels. Something like 1500 people, at least, are now directly working in that industry in the South West alone. There are already several important solar panel installations on line (i.e mass producing electricity). The biggest one, with 1 million photovoltaic panels, will start producing in the spring of 2010. It should produce enough energy for 40 000 homes (it is located in the huge Landes Forest).

    At the same time both Paris and Bordeaux are busy building urban solar plants on the roofs of buildings within these cities. Each town claim its plant is THE biggest solar urban plant in the country…

    By the way South Western France doesn’t have a tropical climate…it seldom snow but it rains a lot, just like here. Germany and Japan aren’t hot countries either, yet both have had solar panels on a big number of homes for years. What are we waiting for??

    I focus here on solar panels but mini windmills, micro run of river plants (owned by a single homeowner)etc. are also being built.

    In some cases, just by super-insulating an older home, replacing doors, windows, light fixtures, bulbs, appliances etc. by ones that save 60-75 % energy, compared to the older models, recycling rain water and grey water etc. is enough to reduce energy bills to a small fraction of what the home used to use.

    Red frog

    December 23, 2009 at 12:08 am

  3. […] of the better perspectives I have read on the negotiations is from Vancouver urban planner Stephen Rees who reminds us that we should not wait for politicians to make changes.  Climate leadership can […]

  4. […] impact” [Victoria Times-Colonist] Builders face higher charges [Calgary Herald] INTERNATIONAL Copenhagen [Stephen Rees's blog] The Coming Green Sprawl [Enterprise Irregulars] Hanoi’s […]

    re:place Magazine

    December 23, 2009 at 7:31 am

  5. The affront to the US even went further. According to the Sunday’s New York Times President Obama had scheduled a meeting with Brazil, China, Russia, and India only to arrive for the meeting to find that China had convened the meeting one hour earlier. Unfortunately the diplomatic affront to President Obama may further undermine President Obama’s influence in the US. Several commentators have already said this would not have happened under a President such as Regan.

    Personally it was not unexpected that that the conference failed. It was rather utopian to think that with so many competing interests, agendas, and ideologies at play that this conference could succeed. One positive that perhaps will come out of the failure of the conference is that we will begin to act locally on the issue of the environment by moving away from the philosophy of engaging the population through so called “behavioural finance” (carbon tax, cap and trade) to engaging us through citizenship.

    It is time for government, business, and big green to move aside and allow the issue to be solved through a truly democratic process.


    December 23, 2009 at 11:31 am

  6. It is probably significant that BC was the only province to introduce a carbon tax – and the only one to increase its production of industrial greenhouse gas emissions

    Stephen Rees

    December 23, 2009 at 11:35 am

  7. There’s a serious practical problem with the rebate programs for energy efficient home upgrades. When money is tight, the size of the project and thus the size of the rebate is barely enough to cover the cost of the requisite energy audit.

    A couple of years ago I had some leaky old single pane windows replaced with new double pane vinyl windows. I could have claimed a rebate, but I’d have first had to pay for an energy audit and the rebate would have only just covered the cost of the audit. It wasn’t worth the effort.

    We only replaced the worst 1/3 of our windows because it was all we could afford at the time. Likewise we bought a few bales of insulation and installed it ourselves in the rafters above the bedrooms. The kitchen, living room and dining room remain mostly uninsulated as do the walls. I’m sure a more efficient furnace would save some money and cut emissions, but the cost of the new furnace and modern ducts would probably exceed the energy savings over the lifetime of the house.

    I’ll continue to do little things like taking transit to work and adding more insulation when I can afford it, but feeding my kids is far higher on the priority list than reducing my carbon footprint.


    December 23, 2009 at 3:59 pm

  8. I don’t see the conference as a failure, although some illusions were burst.

    With the Health Care bill passing both houses President Obama is not only looking strong politically, but will ride the wave of having delivered in the first year of his tenure what has evaded every other administration for about as far back as you want to go.

    The snub by China could backfire. As long as China’s prosperity is linked with the fickle trends of our global consumer economy, coming into the radar screen of Joe-Six-Pack should be avoided at all costs.

    Copenhagen accomplished what Kyoto did not. The so-called BRIC nations were there (Brazil, Russia, India and, yes, China).

    That is not to be missed. Just being there was a huge concession for the top Chinese bureaucrats who are not used to being told what to do. Obama looked hip chasing them down, and cornering them. The Chinese looked passé hiding behind diplomatic smoke.

    There was a consensus of sorts about making concrete measurements on pollution. That’s a good follow-on to Kyoto.

    No, it is not the edgy revolution that some called for. But, it is a substantial change of course in the most difficult of all political forums: the United Nations [the name is purely symbolic].

    Real consensus, and one would hope real political action, can only be built on concrete facts that all can agree on because they are verifiable. Copenhagen put us on the road to get there.

    Let’s keep our eye on that ball, and let’s keep moving forward.

    Lewis N. Villegas

    December 28, 2009 at 11:03 am

  9. An alternate hypothesis is that Copenhagen had to fail to reach a binding agreement, because any politically possible binding agreement at this time would not have strong enough to solve the problem. Better that they create a strong solution next year then lock us into a weak and ineffective binding agreement this year.


    December 28, 2009 at 8:34 pm

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