A verdict on Planet under Pressure

March 30, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net


Planet Under Pressure is over. We’ve heard from eminent sociologist Antony Giddens about the ineffective, virtual world of conferences; we’ve heard from technology policy specialist Nigel Cameron about the scientific bubble that has no purchase on the real world. Did PuP, as we came to call it, have ‘cling’ power?

Did the plane fares, the carbon offset fees, the daily lives left in suspension, the mammoth, expensive, conference apparatus, merit the effort — or could it all have been better directed, as one senior delegate argued , towards actually tackling environmental problems?

Most commonly used words in questions asked during the first three plenaries of the conference
Planet Under Pressure

Some over-used words at the meeting no longer have ‘cling power’ with me. I apologise for this but words like ‘engagement’, ‘governance’, ‘value-change’ and ‘empowerment’ slide off my tired consciousness leaving nothing behind.

But, because of this, one of the delights of this conference was the way in which social scientists offered routes away from these increasingly empty terms. Their presentations helped explain why scientists are modern-day Cassandras – accurately prophesying doom (and, in their case, repeatedly prescribing engagement, governance and empowerment) — but destined never to be heeded.

Values don’t just change to order: scientists have to be a bit more sophisticated than that. This was made compellingly clear by sociologist Kari Marie Norgard. She presented a mind-boggling (to a humble science reporter) analysis of personal, cultural and social attitudes to climate change based on the nested theory of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

She convincingly demonstrated that the climate change message is so damaging to our perceptions of ourselves, on all three levels, that it is no wonder we ignore it.

From Richard Wilkinson there was the insight that some values do alter with the changing level of equality in society. From governance expert Oran Young, we saw that common crises (World War II, the Great Depression) can drive bickering nations into new ways of governing themselves at a global level. This linked with a call from panellist Pamela Collins for a ‘global patriotism’ – a kind of wartime footing that would bring out the collective best in us and see us acting for the global good.

And the insight from several sub-captains of industry (including oil company Shell and UK waste company Viridor) seemed to be: don’t bother with complex, value-changing engagement strategies – slap the right tax on us and we will innovate our way in a new, greener direction.

I wonder if the social scientists picked up similarly illuminating titbits from the natural sciences. Surely this meeting has been a success in fostering links between them (in addition, of course, to Future Earth – the vast, tangible conference outcome).

When I asked a number of senior organisers, before the meeting, how I would know if it had been a success or not, they all told me that its uniqueness (which lay mostly in its interdisciplinarity) meant it was already a success, simply by existing.

More formal negative and positive analyses will emerge over the next months (and see our final news story here). But for me, at least, it did shed light on why scientists’ exhortations fail and what might begin to solve the problem.

This blog post is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.


How to make business environmentally ingenious

March 29, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net


A plea against bureaucracy when designing ways of getting businesses to be greener was made by Colin Drummond, chief executive of a UK waste company, Viridor, one of the few industry representatives to address the plenary sessions.

“Bureaucracy prevents new ideas coming forward,” he said, and gave a compelling example.

He contrasted the environmental footprint of the UK’s water industry with that of its waste industry.

Landfill

Tax on landfill in the UK has seen a 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.

“But we have achieved it at the cost of a huge increase in carbon dioxide emissions – and is the system robust enough to cope with future droughts?” he asked.

In contrast, with the waste industry there was “no bureaucratic approach” he said. There was just a tax on every tonne of waste that went to landfill.

Making landfill too expensive drove ingenuity, with the result that waste handling in the UK has seen a 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions; a five fold increase in recycling; a six fold increase in renewable energy generation … and a profit for shareholders.

The argument that incentives work better than regulation was also put forward by Shell’s Martin Haigh, whose reception on Day One we covered here.

“If there was a global price on carbon that would transform the incentives for Shell,” he said

This blog post is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.


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