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Who has the power to build a sustainable future?

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The keynote debate at Ecology Building Society’s annual general meeting (AGM) this year asked an important question: who has the power to build a sustainable future?

Three speakers from different backgrounds took to the floor during the debate to argue the case for financial institutions, politics and communities. This is what they said.

Financial institutions

Beth Stratford, a PhD researcher at Roehampton University, thinks the financial community’s power and influence is crucial in building a sustainable future.

My first slide has inflating houses to illustrate the housing crisis, a flattened planet and a bank about to fall through the ground. These are three crises that are not unconnected and the case I’m going to make is that if we want to solve these crises we are going to need to make some fundamental, big-ticket changes to our financial system.

So let’s start with the housing crisis, as we all know house prices are going completely bonkers – the average house in London is earning more in terms of annual price increases than the average household is earning in wages; that’s how high and how quickly house prices are rising.

So how’s that come about? Well, one of things that drives price inflation is when you have a growing pool of money chasing a limited pool of goods and resources. Houses are a relatively limited pool of goods and the amount of money chasing houses has been growing extraordinarily quickly.

You might wonder how that is possible when our wages have been flatlining for a longer period than has happened since Queen Victoria. Obviously house prices are rising much faster than wages, so where is all this extra money coming from?

The answer is from bank lending. There’s a very common misperception that when banks lend money they take existing money from savings from the system and just transfer it to the borrowers. The truth is that when banks lend money they create brand new money at the stroke of a finger on a keyboard.

This is how 97% of the money in circulation comes into being – through bank lending. In the eight years leading up to the [2008 financial crisis], banks doubled the money supply. That obviously had a huge impact on the health and direction of the economy. In fact, in the four years before the financial crisis, the banks had more spending power than our elected government.

What were they doing with it all? Most of it was going into housing or into the financial sector for speculation; very little of it was actually going to productive business, and you might not be surprised to find out that very little has changed since the financial crisis. Bank lending is still dominated by housing loans and financial speculation. In fact, politicians are doing their best to fuel another debt-based housing boom because they don’t have the imagination or courage to work out how else to get out of the recession.

I don’t know about you, but I think it is kind of weird that we have given a handful of mega shareholder-owned, profit-orientated companies a virtual monopoly over the creation and allocation of the money supply without any real obligation to use that money in the public interest.

I also think it’s kind of weird that we have allowed our banking sector to grow, merge and agglomerate until we have one of the least diverse banking sectors in the whole world.  Some countries get why we would want a diverse banking sector, there’s Germany, the US and Japan – each of those gets it.

If you want a banking sector that can properly assess loans for small businesses, for houses, for housing co-ops and actually understand the local context, then you’ve got to have small-scale, regionally-managed banks that really understand the local context.

We simply have lost sight of that. It doesn’t have to be that way; there are things we can do to address that problem.

One thing we could do is to put a size limit on banks, because obviously the too big to fail banks get this enormous subsidy every year because the markets know that the state will come and bail them out of it comes to it.

We could also put hard limits on the amount of money created for speculation. We could have a community reinvestment act. We could, just as a start, set a much better example with the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), our own taxpayer-owed bank, which could be broken up into regional banks and have a mandate to lend to the local economy instead of bankrolling the fossil fuel industry.

The World Development Movement estimates RBS’s lending to fossil fuel companies has a carbon footprint of up to 911m tonnes of carbon dioxide – that is around 1.6 times the entire footprint of the UK just from one year of RBS lending.

If you think that’s bad, fossil fuel shares on the London Stock Exchange are valued at about £900 billion. Most of that value comes from estimates of how much oil, gas and coal we are going to be able to get out of the ground. The trouble is that is we get all of that out of the ground and we burn it we will release 470 times more carbon than the UK.

If you have come across the research from the Carbon Tracker Institute [http://blueandgreen.wpengine.com/features/carbon-trackers-latest-analysis-is-a-warning-to-fossil-fuel-investors-everywhere/], you will be well aware that if we want to stay within in a safe carbon budget we can only burn about 20% of proven fossil fuel reserves. We have to leave the other 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

This means, unfortunately, that the quarter owned by public companies, which are largely owned by ordinary people’s pension funds and insurance funds, 80% of that is what is called a stranded asset. Essentially, if we are really serious about tackling climate change then it has no value.

What can we do about this? We have to have much more active shareholders, hassling their pension trustees; we have got to have much more transparency; we have got to have mandatory reporting of the carbon footprint of investments and fiduciary duty, which is unhelpfully interpreted by trustees at the moment as a straightjacket that means they can only work to maximise short-term profit, rather than thinking about the long-term economic and social interests of their beneficiaries.

I think if we clarified all of these things, we would get a long way.

Politics

Alastair Harper, who runs the thinktank Green Alliance’s Political Leadership theme, argues that the political community has the power to create the change needed to build a sustainable future.

I want to start off saying something that I think is pretty controversial: I think politicians have a very difficult job and they actually try quite hard to make progress and make a better world.

Making that better world means making people lose quite a lot. The reason we keep propping up unsustainable housing crises is that no politician can bear to tell someone that their house is worth a tiny bit less. It will always be worth more than when they first brought it but it might be worth a tiny bit less than a year ago, at which point parliament would be burnt down.

It’s a similar thing with stranded assets; it seems perfectly obvious from just an environmental reality that these assets are stranded. You can’t burn them; if you did before you got to the bottom of the pile, we would hope that some legislation would be passed. Even if it didn’t, they wouldn’t get burnt because civilisation wouldn’t really exist anymore. Explaining that to a bunch of traders is quite difficult when they are worried about the next six months.

The problem is that politics isn’t capable of creating the momentum for the problem. What we’ve seen is there are some really obvious problems out there that will be fixed after a political career is over and the full pain will be felt after a political career is over.

There are some examples of things that are becoming clearer. In the short-term, one of the obvious things is the cost of energy bills. The rise of energy and food prices over the last few years has been putting our inflation up by half a per cent each year. Meanwhile, those who earn an average of £6,338 a year spend just under £2,000 of that on their energy bills.

That’s something that gets political notice but some of the wider resource implications doesn’t, so how do we get politics more capable of dealing with this and more capable of acting?

One way is to grow the information. We’ve seen it on decarbonisation; we have a committee on climate change that brings in independent expertise and tells the government what they should be doing about this. Sometimes they even listen.

We can do the same with resources and create an institute for resources that advises on the budget and points out if [the government] is doing something incredibly stupid for the medium and long-term in the interest of the next six months of the economy – something that requires departments to reply to it.

But I would argue still that that is something quite abstract, something quite elite and technocratic and takes away from the public, which is the problem that we face when we are trying to make the right decisions.

Most of this country quietly loves wind farms but a very few loudly hate them and that has caused a political reaction, certainly in the media a narrative reaction. Part of the thing we need to start seeing is the growth of public engagement in what they love, something that Ecology Building Society is the perfect example of, but we need to role out the model and make more environmental winners in this country, rather than just framing the narrative as a problem we are trying to avoid.

One example of that is the Green Investment Bank. At the moment, it uses public money to invest in environmentally good infrastructure. Why don’t we let the public benefit from that by getting the public to invest in bonds that are backed by the offshore wind projects or the energy efficiency projects that we know will get a return?

In doing that, we create policy certainty in the same way that there is policy certainty to create a housing bubble. If we had 20,000 members of the public investing in government-backed offshore wind, it would be a heck of a lot harder for the chancellor to scrap those projects at the next budget.

In the same way, we can involve the public in the deployment of local infrastructure a lot more than we do now. At the moment we tend to use central government agencies to take the money to do flood defences or we give economic backing to large businesses to invest in big infrastructure.

If instead we could let local communities to bid into plans for central government funding for things like local flood defences, city energy or food management, we would start to get people active and wanting to defend environmental policies in this country.

It’s about opening up the whole country to the opportunities of a growing green economy. If we do that, it gets a heck of a lot easier for politicians to act.

People

Anna Dart, a Balcombe resident during the recent anti-fracking protests against Cuadrilla last year, says people – and activists – are the most important levers.   

My experience has been quite depressing in one sense and quite encouraging in another. Finance comes from people, politics comes from people – so it all starts at the beginning with us at the grassroots level and I think what we are seeing now is a failed economic system, a failed political system and we therefore need to start in our communities rebuilding politics and finance.

A recent YouGov poll showed that people supported wind farms in contrast to fracking by three to one, but the government is still pressing ahead with fracking in this country and making it more difficult to build wind farms.

Opposition in the UK has grown tremendously against fracking since 2013, with the protest in Balcombe we have seen growing public awareness about this issue, but the government still wants to press ahead.

The government now wants to get rid of the law on trespass, which will mean effectively that fracking companies can frack underneath your own private property without you being able to do anything about it and this should enrage us all and make us want to take action in our local communities.

There was a poll conducted in Balcombe, which showed that 82% of residents opposed fracking and yet despite all of this, a West Sussex county council planning officer recommended that Cuadrilla be given approval to frack in Balcombe, in spite of some 900 letters of objections. This really is quite depressing and it means we really need to take action on the ground because local democracy has completely failed.

So where do we go from here? It starts with you and me. I’m not an expert in fracking I’m just an ordinary citizen who has seen my community torn apart by companies like Cuadrilla seeking to frack. If you want to know about the affects of fracking I recommend that you watch the Josh Fox film Gasland 2 about the effects of fracking in America. America is often held up as a success story in terms of fracking but the [documentary] really shows the damage that is does in terms of water contamination, air quality, birth defects and increased cancer rates.

In Balcombe, a new social enterprise was started last year called RePower Balcombe and it aims to eventually create the equivalent of 100% of Balcombe’s energy through renewable resources.

It’s quite strange this disconnect. People at the grassroots level are taking these kinds of initiatives and yet at the same time Cuadrilla is being given approval to frack and the government is pushing ahead with this through its support for the fracking community.

So what can we do? I think we need to go back to our communities – vast swathes of the UK have been identified as areas that could be fracked in the future, so therefore no place is safe in the UK.

We need to go back to our communities if we are against fracking. We need to create small groups that oppose fracking companies if they come on our doorstep, but also need to come up with alternatives and create new initiatives that support renewable energy.

Photo: Ecology Building Society

Further reading:

Ecology Building Society AGM: sustainable finance makes ground

What’s gone wrong with finance?

IPCC findings demand investment in a sustainable future, say investors

Investing for the past or investing for the future?

A sustainable investment revolution must emerge from the IPCC’s stark warning

Editors Choice

2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage

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Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/droidworker

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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Environment

How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018

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eco-responsible
Shutterstock / By KENG MERRY Paper Art | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/kengmerrymikeymelody

Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.

Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:

1. Energy – produce it, save it

If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.

It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.

While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.

energy efficient

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By My Life Graphic

Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!

2. Don’t be just another tourist

Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.

3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly

eco-friendly

Shutterstock / By Khakimullin Aleksandr

We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t  mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.

To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.

It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.

4. Know thy recycling

People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.

People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.

5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool

Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.

All in all

The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.

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