American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous quote about a “small group of thoughtful, committed people” being the only thing that has ever changed the world could have been said about the Transition Towns movement.
Launched in 2005 in Totnes, Devon, in response to environmental and economic pressures, offshoot initiatives initially spread elsewhere in the UK. Now, there are Transition Towns in communities across the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Brazil and more.
The man behind it all is Rob Hopkins, and he spoke to Alex Blackburne about his project’s meteoric success.
What is the Transition Network?
It’s really an approach which is about what a community-led response to climate change, the end of the age of cheap energy and the economic crisis looks like. It’s founded on the idea of community resilience, making the places that we live in more resilient to shock and change, and seeing that as a historic opportunity for entrepreneurship, fresh-thinking and creativity.
Where did the idea come from?
It started in Totnes, and we started an exploration into what a community-led approach would look like, and then it just took off – much to our surprise. We started getting people around the UK picking it up, and then further afield, and there’s now not a week that goes by we don’t say, “Look what they’re doing in South Africa!” or wherever.
The world is on the verge of giving up the idea that we can actually do anything about climate change, and that’s what drives me
The original idea was to see how we could create some kind of self-organising approach. It wasn’t designed to be like a Coca-Cola franchise; it was designed to be something that people anywhere in the world would pick up. There was enough shape to it that it felt like it was a recognisable, distinct thing, but at the same time there was enough freedom and flexibility for them to make it their own.
For example, the Transition movement is just on fire in Brazil, and it doesn’t feel like a UK import; it feels like a Brazilian thing. They’ve developed their own way of teaching it, communicating it and presenting it, and that’s a testament of how we designed it at the beginning.
Do you have a clear idea of what a low-carbon economy looks like?
It’s becoming much clearer. When we started, we always framed Transition as being an experiment – and something that we’d only figure out if enough people in enough different places have a go at it, and we could pool that learning and that knowledge. But I think now, we have a sense that it’s in part about shifting the focus from inward investment to internal investment, and getting communities to invest in themselves.
That’s one of the things that comes through very strongly in the new book. We’re looking at a model that is going to be focused on localisation, and the things that make sense to do. It’s going to be based on resilience and looking at how the things that we do and the businesses that are put in place contribute to that.
They’re going to be low-carbon and they’re going to recognise that we live in a world of limits; not of infinite resource possibilities. They’re going to be about bringing resources to community ownership. And often, they’re going to be enterprises that serve a wider social purpose – rather than just for profit. Those models are really exciting.
What’s the reaction been like within communities that are now Transition Towns?
Even the most successful Transition projects wouldn’t claim every single person in that community thinks it’s fantastic and is on board, and I think sometimes feel that unless you get to that stage, you can’t really do much that is of any use. But actually, there’s a huge amount you can do.
Resilience is the vital missing part from discussions about sustainability
Often in the more overtly green world, people often don’t have such an awareness about how some things tend to exclude a lot of people. Something like Transition, which is very much about working at a local level to try and build a coalition of different organisations towards community resilience, can’t be seen as on the left or the right.
How does resilience relate to sustainability?
Resilience is the vital missing part from discussions about sustainability. Sustainability is generally always a good thing, whereas you can have a very resilient place that is not necessarily good in other ways. But what sustainability doesn’t design in is the ability to withstand and adapt to shock.
Sustainability tends to imply a kind of steady state; that you reach a place everything can kind of chug along on a sustainable level. Whether it’s because of climate change, our continued dependence on undependable energy sources or the financial crisis, we seem to be entering a time where the possibilities of shocks are increasing.
What are your personal motivations for doing what you do?
Because I can’t see any other ethically defensible thing to be doing at this moment in history. I have four sons, and I feel committed to being able to look them in the eyes in 20 years’ time and tell them that I did all I could during the time when there was still things that could be done.
I was talking recently to a colleague in the US who works for an organisation that funds a lot of climate work. She said that the people she meets at the UN and the US government are giving it 18 more months, and then all the funding that is currently going into mitigation will be moved into adaptation and defence. That’s the point that we’re at.
The world is on the verge of giving up the idea that we can actually do anything about climate change, and that’s what drives me. This little window of opportunity will never happen again, and we need to be doing whatever we can to be trying to do something about that.
Are you optimistic?
It looks pretty much certain now that we’re going to go past 2C of warming. I can’t see much of a way that that’s not going to happen because we’re so nearly there and emissions are increasing if anything. I suppose it’s really about whether we can avoid more warming in a very complex system where there are lots of uncertainties.
I always go back to what Paul Hawken said when he was asked whether he was an optimist or a pessimist. He said if you read the climate science and you’re not a pessimist, you haven’t read it properly, and if you’ve looked at what people around the world are doing in response to climate change and you’re not an optimist, you haven’t got a heart.
There are no guarantees with any of this. I don’t know whether we can make it or not. But it certainly feels like we have to do whatever we can.
Rob Hopkins is founder of the Transition Towns movement. His latest book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, is available to buy online now.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable
Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.
1. Weather stripping
If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.
Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.
Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.
2. Programmable thermostats
Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.
Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!
3. Low-flow water hardware
With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.
Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.
Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.
4. Energy efficient light bulbs
An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.
New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.
5. Installing solar panels
Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.
Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.
From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!
These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.
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