a talk to the Scottish Government Housing Investment Division West Region, Glasgow, 24 November 2009.
Thank you for inviting me. I am particularly delighted to be talking to you today because you are employees of the Scottish Government and that gives me an excuse to tell a story I’ve been dying to tell for years, many years.
Decades ago I worked for the housing campaign group, Shelter. After I left to become a freelance writer and journalist, I was commissioned to write an assessment of the Tenant Participation Advisory Service in Scotland from 1980 to 1986. This involved me in talking to tenants’ organisations, voluntary groups, housing experts and, crucially, relevant officials in the then Scottish Office. I remember conducting a major interview with a bright young civil servant, who made some frank, critical and interesting remarks about the advisory service, some of which I included in my final report.
Unfortunately, I later heard that the bright young civil servant in question was upset because I had attributed the remarks to him. He had assumed that our interview was off-the-record - clearly not my understanding - and was dismayed that he had been named. The civil servant, I was told, was particularly concerned because he feared that being quoted saying such things would damage his career prospects in the civil service.
This civil servant’s name? John Elvidge, now of course Sir John Elvidge, the permanent secretary and head of the Scottish Government. So, if anyone else wants me to similarly damage their career prospects by quoting them, I would be happy to oblige.
It is unusual and slightly daunting for a journalist to be asked to express his views, rather than simply report the view of others. I must make the usual caveat: these are my views only and not necessarily those of my employers.
My topic this morning is ‘Climate Change and Housing’. What I plan to do is to give a brief resume of the evidence we now have about climate change, including its impact on poor countries and the responsibilities of rich countries, and then make a few remarks about how that impacts on housing policy in Scotland. Forgive me if I’m telling you things you already know. And please remember, I am a journalist, not an expert; an observer not an academic. I’ll be more than happy to take questions afterwards.
Last month I was privileged to join a trip organised by Christian Aid to the sub-Saharan African republic of Mali. Mali is one of the world’s poorest countries. 70% of its 12 million people live in poverty on less than a dollar a day. More than one in of its ten infants die, and the average life expectancy is 51. The first place we visited was Bandiagara in the north of the country, where we went to a child malnutrition clinic.
There I met a two-year-old boy, Adama, and his 35-year-old mother Amadou. Adama was frighteningly thin and weak, with spindly limbs and a strangled cry. He was admitted to the clinic because the circumference of his upper forearm measured less than 10 centimetres. That is about the size of the thick end of a snooker cue, and is within the danger zone for malnutrition in children under five.
Adama and Amadou, we learnt, came from a small rural village called Yawakanda, which we later visited. Set in the baking heart of Africa, its red earth was parched, and its people were running out of food. The rains have been coming later and finishing earlier each year, and the crops of millet on which the villagers depend have failed. All around the village last month we could see the tall plants were dry and dying, through lack of water.
In the shade, we talked to the village elder, Suliman Dolo. “We did not receive the last rain, that is why the millet has died,” he said. “The women have very short pregnancies, and mothers do not have enough milk for their children, so the children cannot eat...We know this problem in Yawakanda.” He added: “Things have changed...A long time ago when I was a child, there was more rain, so we could produce more food.”
Dolo’s suggestion that the rains are disappearing is reinforced by official figures showing that in the 1970s about 600 millimetres of rain used to fall in the region every year, but now it’s down to around 450 mm a year. The rainy season used to start in May, but now starts in July. Yawakanda’s lifeblood, its river, used to dry up every March, but now it is drying up months earlier in December or January. Villagers recount how they used to be able to fill a barn with the millet they could grow, but now they are struggling to grow enough to feed their families.
The villagers’ accounts are supported by the evidence gathered by international scientists. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, involving more than 2,000 climate scientists around the world, says that the average annual temperature in sub-Saharan Africa has risen by nearly half a degree centigrade between 1981 and 1995.
And in the future, scientists predict that the region will suffer some of the world’s highest temperature increases if developed countries carry on polluting. According to the United Nations, average temperatures could rise by nearly four degrees by the 2050s, and rainfall could decrease a further 25%.
Everyone we met in Mali, ordinary people, experts, campaigners, government officials had the same message: climate change is a reality, it’s happening now, and it’s making our hard lives much harder. The implications of this are truly revolutionary. It means that our understanding, our language and our politics all have to change.
The carbon dioxide pollution that developed countries like Scotland and the UK spew into the atmosphere from everything we do, and everything we have done since the start of the industrial revolution, is making Africa and other southern regions of the world suffer. The plight of that great continent is no longer a thing apart, a tragic accident of fate that pricks our conscience every Christmas, but a disaster directly caused by driving our cars, filling our shopping baskets and powering our homes.
In short, this is no longer a natural disaster. It is an unfolding human catastrophe in which we are all implicated, and for which we are all to blame and for which we all have to take responsibility. This is now a global consensus to which there is no serious challenge, and it’s why the world’s leaders will be gathering in Copenhagen for a climate summit next month to try and agree new measures to cut the pollution that is causing the problems. The Africans we met are pinning much hope in the outcome of the summit, the prospects for which at the moment do not look good.
To drive home the point, I want to talk a little more about the scientific evidence about climate change, again from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Their studies show that levels in the atmosphere of the main climate polluting, or greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide have been pretty constant around 260-270 parts per million for about 10,000 years before 1800.
But that since the start of the industrial revolution, there has been a dramatic and unprecedented rise in carbon dioxide concentrations over the last 200 years, accelerating rapidly in the last 50 years. So that by 2007 there were 387 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That’s more than 40% higher than before the industrial revolution.
If the world carries on with business as usual, the concentration is predicted to increase to over 500 parts per million by 2050, and to over over 900 parts per million by 2100. What does this means for the world? In short it means rising temperatures, rising sea levels, floods, droughts, storms, water shortages, food shortages, poor health, mass migrations, major disasters and resource wars.
The evidence clearly shows that climate change is already happening. There has been a clear rise in average global temperature of about a degree centigrade between 1900 and 2000. Over the same period the global average sea level has risen by more than one centimetre, and there has been a distinct decline in snow cover in the northern hemisphere.
Scientists particularly fear that if the world gets much hotter it may trigger irreversible tipping points which could kick-start ever-faster and ever more dangerous changes with spiralling feedback loops. The risks we are talking about here include: the sudden melting of the polar ice caps, a mass release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from Siberia, the collapse of the Amazonian rainforest, changes to the El Niño Southern Oscillation weather pattern in the Pacific, changes to the Indian monsoon season, or the rapid growth of the Sahara desert across countries like Mali. Any of these events could make things a lot worse.
When scientists attempt to summarise how the world might look if the average temperature rose by four degrees centigrade, it looks scary. Vast parts of the globe, including most of Africa, Asia, Australia and America would become uninhabitable, because they would have turned into deserts or were plagued by floods, drought or other extreme weather. No wonder that the UK government former chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, described climate change as “the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism.”And why the US president Barack Obama has said:
“All across the world, in every kind of environment and region known to man, increasingly dangerous weather patterns and devastating storms are abruptly putting an end to the long-running debate over whether or not climate change is real. Not only is it real, it's here, and its effects are giving rise to a frighteningly new global phenomenon: the man-made natural disaster.”
So it’s an enormous crisis, but what should we do about it? At one level it’s obvious and simple. We have to stop emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, we have to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind, wave and tidal power, we have to change our transport patterns, we have to eat less meat because meat production has a much higher carbon footprint that other foods, and we have to use our energy a whole lot more efficiently, and not to waste large amounts like we do now. It’s that last area, perhaps, that is most important for housing policy, which I’ll come on to.
But first I need to deal with the question of who should be making the pollution cuts. Cumulatively, since the industrial revolution, North America has produced at least 20 times more climate pollution than Asia and perhaps 40 times more than sub-Saharan Africa. The US and the UK have produced maybe more than a hundred times as much pollution as countries like Ethiopia, Mali or Bangladesh.
Looking at it another way, by comparing the average amounts of carbon pollution caused per person in different countries, it becomes even more obvious. The average annual carbon dioxide emission for each person in the US is currently about 23 tonnes. In the UK it is 11 tonnes per person, closely followed by Japan and France. The world average is about five tonnes per person. China is approaching four tonnes per person, and India and Indonesia are around two tonnes per person. Bangladesh, Mali and other very poor countries are all below one tonne per person - well below.
Scientists reckon that to prevent climate change from becoming very dangerous we should try and keep the average global temperature rise below two degrees centigrade. That equates to 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions for everyone in the world - half the current global average, four and a half times less than the average UK emissions and nine times less than US per capita emissions.
The message is pretty clear, and pretty indisputable. Rich, industrialised countries caused climate change, and they have to take responsibility for curbing it. That puts a heavy burden on Western policy-makers, to which some, including the UK and Scotland, have responded well, at least in terms of the legislative targets they have set.
As you’ll doubtless be aware the Scottish government this summer passed one of the most ambitious pieces of climate change legislation in the world. It commits the government to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 1990 levels, by 42% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. The Climate Change (Scotland) Act also promised an energy efficiency action plan, which was published last month.One of its key aims is to “encourage and assist householders to improve the energy performance of their homes and to avoid wasting energy”. It says: “While housing stock has become more energy efficient, more needs to be done. Take-up of energy efficiency measures has been disappointing despite successive campaigns, and behaviours have actually become more energy-intensive.”
The role of housing in climate change is major. According to the government, at the moment around 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland derive from the domestic sector through heating of homes and water, cooking, lighting, and running household and home entertainment appliances. Official figures also suggest that about a quarter of Scottish households suffer from fuel poverty, though some put the figure higher.
The government’s energy efficiency action plan talks of the need for a “step change” in improving the domestic use of energy. “Virtually all lofts and cavities need to be insulated to current recommended levels as soon as possible,” it says. It also talks about upgrading or converting heating systems, improving electrical products, changing habits, and installing other insulation products, draught proofing, glazing and microgeneration technologies. “There is broad consensus that virtually all dwellings will be affected, that millions of measures are required, and the total capital cost will be high,” it says.
The action plan points out that there are many owners and landlords who have not taken steps to improve the energy efficiency, despite the advantages of this in terms of warmer homes, reduced emissions and lower fuel bills. Privately rented housing, it says, is much more likely to be rated "poor" for energy efficiency than social rented or owner-occupied properties, with around one in six privately rented properties rated poor.
There are certainly problems with the existing system of offering advice, guidance and grants to householders, as my own experience as a owner-occupier in Edinburgh testifies. In July, I rang the energy advice service to try and do two things. To find a way of insulating my kitchen from the cold draughts that come up from the cellar space under the floor. They referred me to a list of companies of their website. I contacted the only three whose websites suggested they could help with such a problem, and discovered that in fact none of them could. I couldn’t even get anyone to come and look at the problem.
The other thing I rang the energy advice service for was to get an expert to come and check whether I could do with more insulation in my loft space. I have some, but I wanted to check whether it would be worth adding more. They promised to get in touch with an power company, EDF Energy as it happens, and said they would be in touch with me soon with a view to arranging a visit from an expert. More than four months later, I have so far heard nothing.
Another important improvement the government talks up in its energy efficiency plan is district heating, which can these days provide highly efficient and controllable hot water and electricity from local boilers or power plants, as well as significant energy savings. Although such combined heat and power district heating are supported by a number of policies, this has not resulted in the level of deployment for which there is potential, the government says - and this must change.
Of course all these measures will cost money, serious sums of money. According to the energy efficiency plan much would be needed to meet the government target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 42% by 2020. 1.55 million homes would need loft insulation, 625,000 homes would need cavity wall insulation and 500,000 homes would need double glazing. The action plans adds:
“There would need to be substantial fabric upgrades to all stock, along with fitting of substantial low-carbon equipment with over one million dwellings using solar panels to heat water, 100,000 dwellings using biomass boilers, and around 50,000 air source and ground source heat pumps. The total cost would be around £16 billion.”
£16 billion is a lot of money. It’s around £7,000 per home. When the energy efficiency plan was published the Scottish government launched its new domestic energy efficiency loans scheme at a total cost of £2 million. That’s good, obviously, but it’s a very long way from where it needs to be.
Earlier this month Scottish ministers also launched a £15 million home insulation scheme, a greatly scaled-down version of the scheme originally proposed by the Scottish Greens. The Green scheme offered free loft and cavity wall insulation across Scotland in a ten year programme and would have cut household bills by an average of £340 and Scotland’s carbon emissions by nearly 6% by 2020. The SNP’s new scheme, in contrast, will cut household bills by just £70 and reduce the nation’s carbon emissions by less than 0.5% by 2020. If continued, the SNP scheme will take 66 years to do what the Green scheme would do in ten years.
Clearly the government can, and must, do more. Campaigners point out that the German government has invested £26 billion in improving the energy efficiency of its housing stock since 1990. This has delivered a 13% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and generated or safeguarded some 318,000 jobs.
Experts say that Scotland’s energy efficiency standards for new buildings are still thirty years behind those of Sweden. The Scottish government announced in February 2009 that the next change to building regulations, in 2010, will deliver a 30% reduction in emissions for both domestic and non-domestic buildings. Although this is clearly an improvement, it ignores the advice of the government’s own expert panel which recommended a 50% improvement for non-domestic buildings. The government, campaigners urge, should set out the roadmap with the aim of making all new buildings zero carbon by 2016.
These are big demands, and I’m sure many of you know much better than I do the challenges that will have to be overcome in the housing sector to make such aspirations reality. But, in my view, there is no doubt about the direction we should be heading, and that our ambitions must be radical. This is not just for the benefit of Scottish householders in terms of warmer homes and lower fuel fills, it is for the benefit of the planet. It is particularly necessary for the millions of people in Africa and other developing countries who are already suffering from the ravages of climate pollution.
So to conclude, I want to go back to Mali in Africa, where I began. In the capital, Bamako, I met a very eloquent, very impressive and very influential leader called Ibrahim Togola, the director of the Mali Folkecenter, which works closely with the Malian government on social and environmental issues. He said that the Scottish government’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 42% by 2020 could set an example for others to follow.
“To fight against darkness you have to light a candle,” Togola said. “If we have a light coming from the UK, coming from Scotland, that will be a signal to the rest of the world.”
Togola is working closely with the governments of sub-Saharan Africa countries to try and persuade world leaders to agree major pollution cuts and serious funding for developing countries at the Copenhagen summit, which he will be attending.
“If I remember my schooling right, the industrial revolution started in your country,” he told me. “Maybe now you could start the climate revolution. Scotland and the UK could take a lead, and it could start from that place.”
Action is necessary to prevent environmental disaster from enveloping Mali, he argued. “If you go to my village and talk to my grandfather, he will tell you that something is wrong.”
The pollution that belches from vehicles, power plants and farms in rich countries is disrupting the weather. “People are going hungry because there has not been enough rain,” Togola insisted. “We are very angry, very fearful and very concerned about our future.”
The Mali Folkecenter works with the UK charity, Christian Aid, and communities around Mali to promote renewable energy, clean water and sustainable local enterprises. But its job is becoming increasingly difficult as the rainy seasons shrink, rivers dry up and communities fracture.
“People are dying and we are losing much more than you,” said Togola. “I refuse to believe that world leaders will close their eyes to this. I refuse to believe that people could be so greedy and say no. I refuse to believe that world leaders will only act in their own short-term interest.”
But if Copenhagen does fail, and rich countries do close their eyes, Togola had a bleak message for the developed world. “If you believe you can save your economy and your way of life, you cannot,” he warned.
If the rains continue to fail, Africans will emigrate en masse to Europe, he said. “If you are going to build a wall, we are going to move it. If you make it a 100-metre wall, we will climb it. We will come because we have nothing to lose.”