Newsletter #216 - September 2011
Promoting the Vision of a Sustainable Vancouver Island
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Guy Dauncey, Editor
13561 Barney Road, Ladysmith, BC
Tel (250) 924-1445

Executive director
The Solutions Project



There are times when we simply have to open our brains and learn new science about the critical things that affect our life on Earth.

In the early 20th century, we had to learn about electromagnetism, relativity, and quantum physics.

Today we have to learn about carbon, the carbon cycle, and the atmosphere - and then act on what we have learnt. If we succeed, we live. If we fail, we die.

So let’s learn.

Living on Earth, we are protected from the dire cold of outer space by the atmosphere, which traps just the right amount of heat for our civilization and ecosystems to flourish.

The main gases that trap the heat are water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane, and ever since we started the industrial revolution, 250 years ago, we have been pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an ever-increasing rate by burning ancient fossil fuels.

We have also been pouring a great excess of methane into the atmosphere because it escapes whenever we dig and drill for coal, oil and gas; because our 3.5 billion cattle, sheep and goats burp methane 24 hours a day; and because the garbage from our consumer indulgence produces methane as it rots in the landfill.

Since the start of the industrial age, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased by 42%, from 280 parts per million to 387. The methane has increased by 148% - and over its short eight-year life in the atmosphere, each molecule traps 100 times more heat than a molecule of CO2.

Some people try to believe otherwise, but you can’t take carbon that accumulated as biomass over 200 million years and release it all at once without having an effect. Life just doesn’t work that way.

So what’s this “most important number”? It’s 350 (parts per million) - the level of CO2 that scientists think “safe” for our civilization and ecosystems. Lock it into your brain. Understand what it means. Explain it to your children.

350The thing we have to understand is that as we continue to burn the coal, oil and gas, the CO2 is increasing every year by 2ppm. It’s going up, not down. It was 280. It’s heading to 450 and far beyond. It needs to be 350.

In December’s global climate talks in Copenhagen, there is talk of adopting 450 ppm as a goal in the hope that this will prevent the Earth’s temperature from rising by more than 2ºC.

The trouble is, the closer we get to a 2ºC increase, the greater is the risk that we’re on a slippery slope we can’t get off, since so many tipping points get added to the wrong end of the carbon-balance see-saw.

The Amazon rainforest burns up, releasing its store of carbon. The permafrost melts in the Arctic, releasing methane. It is already doing so. You can plunge a pick into a frozen lake in Siberia, put a match to it and watch the air burst into flames as the escaping methane catches fire. Right now.

This number - 350 - is not just a piece of science. It is a critical survival factor for our existence on Earth. This means that unless every politician and opinion leader on the Earth understands it, they’re going to continue drifting with the lovely, comfortable, business as usual, bailing out the banks, giving tax breaks to the tar sands, and putting their feet up at the weekends while our children’s future goes up in flames.

This is why Saturday October 24th is the most important day of the year - because that is the International Day of Climate Action when 1384 groups in 104 countries (at the time of writing) will communicate the urgency of situation to the world’s leaders, and the importance of writing this number -350 - into the new global climate treaty.

In Victoria, the event’s called FutureFest, in Centennial Square at 12 noon. In Vancouver, it’s Bridge to a Cool Planet, on the Cambie Street Bridge at 11am. On the Gulf Islands, it’s an all-day gathering in Ganges. (See Green Diary)

If you can’t get to one of these events, you can create your own. Register yourself as a group at, find a way to say “350”, and send them a photo. Then send the photo with a message to your MP and to Prime Minister Harper in Ottawa, urging him or her stop pimping and primping to the tar sand and do something. Tell them what you are doing yourself, to reduce your own carbon footprint.

350 means that it’s not enough to eliminate our emissions down to zero. If we want to ensure a safe future for our children, and avoid their fury at us for pissing their future away because we were too lazy to get off our butts and do something to reduce our enormous carbon footprints, we also have to suck much of the surplus carbon back out of the atmosphere.

This means changing the way we farm, forest, and manage the land - since organic farming, ecosystem-based forestry and holistic methods of grasslands and pasture management suck in much more carbon than conventional methods.

How many times do we need to say “URGENT!”, before it really sinks in?
How many months will our children stay quiet, before they begin to explode?

The answer, my friends, is sitting in our hands, the answer is sitting in our hands.
- Guy Dauncey

Guy Dauncey has been the Editor and publisher of EcoNews since 1991. He is also President of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, and author of the forthcoming book The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming.

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Britain’s Sustainable Development Commission was chaired for many years by Jonathon Porritt, one of Britain’s leading green thinkers and activists. In 2008, it launched a search for “Breakthroughs for the 21st Century” that would address the widest sustainability agenda, including climate change and collapsing ecosystems.

They invited experts, practitioners and enthusiasts to share their thinking, and received 285 submissions from across the UK. From these, they selected 19 that they thought were the strongest in their ability to create some kind of shift in the next three to five years. In this and next month’s EcoNews, we will share all 19 ideas. There is a video on all 19 ideas here:

1. Incredible Edible Communities
In Todmorden, West Yorkshire, vegetables and fruit are springing up everywhere. Public flowerbeds are being transformed into community herb gardens and vegetable beds, and they’ve created a toolkit to show people in lower-income housing how to grow food and cook. Their campaign “Every Egg Matters” wants every egg sold in the town to be free-range and locally raised.

The “breakthrough idea” would roll their success out as a national programme, including a food land bank licensed for use by communities, and incentives for businesses to help develop food markets.

Cooking Lessons at Madrona Farm
Cooking lessons at Madrona Farm

2. Rethink the Community Garden
The idea here is to rethink our assumptions about public and private land, so that unused private and public lands can be used to create urban farms for community use, with a paid community farmer to provide the vital cohesion and continuity. Look around, and you’ll find plenty such land in our towns and cities.

Girl with Branches3. Outdoor Experiences for all Children
This idea is about reversing the growing “nature deficit” by ensuring that teaching and learning in an outdoors setting is built into the entire education system, helping children develop the values needed to understand and adopt a sustainable lifestyle. This will require educational leadership at the highest level, to break down resistance to change.

4. Taking Happiness Seriously
The idea here is that our children must learn more than the “core curriculum” at school. “Let us ensure that every child in the UK reaches the age of six feeling radiantly happy about their life. That’s the only sure foundation on which to build a secure and sustainable world.” Schools in Britain are seeing a dramatic increase in emotional and behavioural difficulties - more fights, getting drunk more often, giving birth before 19 more often, fewer in school than all other western countries.

The idea is to bring Personal Wellbeing Education into the schools, making schools more outward-looking by using community-based action-learning methods to help children develop the life-skills they need.

5. Mobilizing Popular Support and Collective Action
To secure real sustainability breakthroughs, people have to be engaged in the transformation. There are lots of groups doing great things, but they are often isolated from each other. What’s needed are new networks that can link the groups, to help people see what’s going on and enable them to jump in where it feels good.

Project Dirt, in South London, uses Google maps to make Green Mapping more easily accessible.

6. Congress for the Future
They must have been reading about our Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform, for this idea seeks a regular annual Congress for the Future, made up of randomly selected people who would be convened by Parliament every year to help build broad agreement and provide direction on long-term questions, without political interference or control by civil servants.

Without this, short-termism become the plague of party-based democracy, and important long-term issues such as the survival of our civilization are ignored in the rush for votes. Its status and procedures would need to be laid out in law, and its members would be invited to engage in an informed, deliberative process, supported by a secretariat.

7. Low Carbon Zones
As well as a strong commitment to reduce its carbon emissions, Britain has a commitment to end “fuel poverty” by 2016 as a social justice issue. The idea of Low Carbon Zones is that every municipality should be required to establish such a zone, ensuring that it contains at least 50% of the least efficient households, measured by infrared heat-loss photography.

The zones would use government funds to retrofit the homes of those on low incomes to the highest efficiency standard, while other households could use low-cost loans, enabling the work to proceed street-by-street as comprehensively as possible, maximizing cost-effectiveness and economies of scale.

8. Community Retrofit Plus
This is another housing related idea, triggered by the evidence that despite significant activity at Britain’s national level, current efforts aren’t working fast enough to reduce the carbon footprint our buildings create.

The idea (from the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities) is for local governments to partner with the private sector to bring together the finance and expertise to undertake widespread retrofits, delivered by approved agents and backed by well-thought-out financing deals to cover the up-front costs. The risks would be bundled through a large number of building upgrades, making it an attractive proposition for long-term investors such as pension funds.

The companies could also create and own community-scale energy operations such as district heat systems and power generation projects. Berlin, Germany, is using this model with much success.

9. “Pay as you Save”
This is the nuts and bolts of building a zero-carbon world. One big disincentive to people making their homes more efficient is the uncertainty of how long they’ll live there. If a loan needs a ten-year payback, many people say, “it’s not worth the bother.”

By attaching a loan for energy efficiency or solar hot water to the utility bill, instead of the owner, repayments would be built into the bill and paid by whoever lives there - hence the name “Pay as you save”. This also makes it attractive for landlords to retrofit their rental properties.

To make the idea work, there has also to be a system of home energy labeling, to guarantee the returns on the investment. The same idea has been developed by the BC Sustainable Energy Association’s Green Landlords project. In the UK, the idea has been included in Britain’s Low Carbon Plan.

10. Biochar and Soils
This breakthrough idea, advanced by Tim Lenton, one of Britain’s leading climate scientists, involves a radical new approach to the way farmers and foresters dispose of their wastes.

Biochar is charred organic material that has been burnt without oxygen in a process known as pyrolysis. Forest and agricultural wastes go into a pyrolysing energy-and charcoal generator that produces heat for a local heating system, plus biogas or bio-oil, and biochar that can be used as a soil amendment, with the carbon being permanently removed from the atmosphere. It also improves the soil structure and increases it ability to hold water and nutrients.

This applies the “carbon capture” idea to biomass, instead of fossil fuels, creating “carbon negative” energy, where the more you use, the more carbon is locked away. It also promotes more energy independent communities at the local scale.

Carbon-rich Biochar
Carbon-rich biochar

10. Fewer Patients are a Virtue
In Britain, as in Canada, if people don’t lead healthier lives, healthcare costs will spiral out of control - and yet only 4% of Britain’s health care budget is spent on prevention and public health, as opposed to direct medical intervention. Meanwhile, we know that sustainable activities such as walking, cycling and growing food improve our health.

The idea is that 20% of the healthcare budget should be dedicated to preventing illness by 2020, through an incremental 1.6% shift each year. When three scenarios were studied over 20 years, the UK Treasury found that the “fully engaged” scenario was the least expensive, delivered the best health outcomes, and that the business-as-usual scenario would increase the cost of healthcare delivery by 50%.

11. Make Cycling Mainstream
The bicycle is the most efficient and environmentally benign form of transport ever invented, and in countries where cycling is more common, people are healthier, happier, better off financially, and there are much higher levels of child wellbeing. Cycle-friendly neighbourhoods also create more social interaction, and reduce crime. There is also less traffic congestion, and better road safety for all.

To make cycling mainstream - as they’ve done in Holland and Denmark - we need a major push in every municipality to curb traffic speed, create more bike lanes and bike paths, provide every child with bike safety training, and provide secure bicycle lock-ups.

Would these ideas work in Canada? We face the same need to grow more local organic food. Our children are growing up in the same nature-deprived sea of commercialism. Our democracy locks us into the same “short-termism”. Our healthcare budgets are also ballooning out of control, and our cyclists are frustrated by the same lack of investment in safe bike routes. So the answer is YES - and evidence that we need the same “breakthrough ideas” here in BC, and Canada.

Next month: 8 more breakthrough ideas.

Action of the Month


The component of the BC government’s LiveSmartBC program that provided incentives for home energy audits and efficiency upgrades has been so successful that the entire $60 billion, 3-year budget has been spoken for in just 15 months. Instead of announcing a replacement program, however, the government has simply let the program die.

This is crazy, just when homeowners were becoming engaged, and the green jobs energy efficiency sector of the economy was beginning to grow. It is essential that LiveSmart 2.0 be developed, to create continuity and build on the success of LiveSmart 1.0.


Send a letter or email urging the government not to abandon its climate action goals, and to include a replacement LiveSmart 2.0 program in the February 2010 budget.

The Wonderful World of Web

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Guy Dauncey, Editor
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