Category: Earth & climate

Civil disobedience in 2016: the war on fossil fuels has begun

photo: Eamon Ryan

Three weeks after the official signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement in the U.N. headquarters in New York, 177 countries have signed the document agreed upon during COP 21 in Paris last year. As I explained in more detail in a previous post, the agreement will only take force when 55 of the countries effectively adopt it in their national parliament. Currently we’re stuck at 16 — covering a dreadful 0.04% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Time to raise the pressure on policy makers. Under the banner of Break Free, climate activists around the world have opened the war on fossil fuels. During 12 days in May, civil disobedience actions target some of the world’s most polluting and dangerous fossil fuel projects.

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On the future of chocolate

photo: Divine Chocolate

Wandering through the Galeries Royales de Saint-Hubert in the heart of Brussels can be a torture for chocolate-lovers (and who’s not?). Many famous Belgian chocolateers have a shop in this 19th century shopping arcade. Think Neuhaus, Léonidas, Godiva… Behind the windows, chocolate in all possible forms and shapes are displayed to lure you inside. The shop keepers are keen to let you try some of this delicous good that the Incas called food of the gods. It becomes very difficult not to spent all the money you have with you -some indeed do. And apperently we don’t have to go to the temples of chocolate to be tempted to buy it. Global sales are growing rapidly now chocolate becomes increasingly popular in China and South-America. Is this growing demand for chocolate a big deal? As long as supply follows demand there’s nothing to worry about, right? But that’s exactly where the problem lies.

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Born of Hope

photo courtesy

Now the media attention about COP21 has died out a bit and I had the chance to have a better look at the Paris Agreement, it’s time to make up the balance of the text called historical by the negotiators and bullsh*t by climate activists.

If you ask me, reaching any agreement between 195 countries on a topic that affects nearly all aspects of our societies is quite historical whatsoever. It took them twenty-one climate summits to get it, that is twenty too many. But hey, here we are.

Is it enough? Of course not. But if you read my blog post at the beginning of COP21, you know that I was not expecting that. To be honest, when I was going through the drafts of the agreement circulating during the two-week summit, I was optimistic. Some of the good things have made it to the final text, some have not.

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Photo of the Week: climate activism gets really creative this time

photo: Avaaz

If by now you don’t know that something really big is happening in Paris, you’ve probably been living under a rock for the last few months. Yes, I’m talking about COP21, the long-anticipated climate summit. For more than a year, organisations around the world have been mobilizing for climate actions on the 28th and 29th of November to sent a strong signal to world leaders at the start of the event. Indeed, around the world thousands of people took it to the streets to march, sing and dance for the climate. But in the epicenter of the talks, the Paris’ climate march was forbidden in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks nearly three weeks ago.

Fair enough, you say. Safety first. But I was in Paris last weekend and what I saw and learnt from the people there was another story. The Christmas market on the Champs-Elysées was no problem to secure. All football matches are being played. No problems whatsoever. Last year a massive manifestation with more than 50 world leaders ahead marched through the streets of Paris to pay tributes to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Not a single issue for the French police back then. But now the authorities claim they can not guarantee the safety of public events related to the climate summit. In the meantime they have enough policemen to conduct house searches in climate activist workshops and putting people under house arrest without any reason  –which they don’t need right now by the way. Officially there is still a state of emergency in which the French police doesn’t need permissions for house searches etc, thanks to a law that was voted shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack last year. How convenient.

Thousands of shoes were placed on the Place de la Républic after the climate march was forbidden (photo: Avaaz)

Thousands of shoes were placed on the Place de la République after the climate march was forbidden (photo: Avaaz)

Anyway, if the French authorities really thought they could stop a climate activists so easily, they were wrong. Several creative actions popped up. If the people cannot march, the shoes will march for them; that was the idea behind the silent march. Thousands pairs of shoes filled the Place de la République in Paris, including one of Pope Francis and Ban Ki-Moon. A human chain stretched along the original route of the march; as long as people stay on the pavement organizers don’t need official permission. Activist group Brandalism was so bold to replace advertisements in the streets of Paris with their own version of ads for big polluting companies who sponsor the climate conference. You see, the climate movement is clearly not intimidated. More creative actions are under way for week 2 of the talks.

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A historical climate conference has just begun– this is what’s at stake

Today the long-anticipated climate conference will take off on Paris. Also known as COP21, the 21st Conference of the Parties, the climate talks are decisive for the future of our planet and all lucky enough to enjoy what she has to offer. What would a successful outcome look like? Is there any hope we will get there after two weeks of negotiations? A look into the future.

“We are the first generation that can end poverty and we are the last generation that can end climate change.”  –Ban Ki-Moon

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Analysis: a traveler’s footprint

If you’re only a bit like me, you love traveling. I love to explore new cities and cultures, meet new people, hear stories and challenge my view on the world. I believe traveling is one of the most effective and fun ways of self-enrichment. But what does our planet think about us flying/driving/sailing around? Now I got rid of the sand in my shoes, the backpack is stored away and I’m back at University, I thought it was the perfect time to present you the results of an experiment I undertook this summer. I wanted to find out what my travel footprint was and if I would be able to do better.

Living in the heart of Belgium, around 30 kilometers from the capital Brussels, I’ve always had the luxury of a broad range of options to go abroad. Brussels is a major international traffic hub, with a lot of international flights, high-speed train connections going in all wind directions and a lot of buses connecting cities all over Europe. Around 60 kilometers to the South, the airport of Chaleroi is the main hub for low-cost airlines — always tempting for the student with a small budget.

The idea to challenge myself to think more about the ecological impact of my journey arose from a discussion I had with one of the participants of a summer academy on sustainability I was attending in the beginning of August. Wasn’t it a bit ironic that a group of young people who are interested in sustainable living, came all the way to Istanbul, in most cases by plane? And many of us seemed to be fervent travellers. This got me thinking… what was my impact on the environment by attending this sustainability academy? And how could plan my travels in the future to limit that footprint?

So I did what you usually do when big life questions arise — I started googling. After half a day of searching the web, I ceased my attempt. Frustratingly enough, I didn’t find any satisfying calculator that could tell me how much greenhouse gases my trip had blewn into the atmosphere. The problem was this: or the available tools were too simple, or they were way too complicated. It was also difficult to track the data sources or to find out which assumptions were made to turn my input into the number the calculator spew out on the screen. My conclusion was clear: I would have to do the calculation myself.

After two days , mainly invested in digging for data on greenhouse gas emissions of different means of transport, I had a first version of the calculator ready in excel. Time for the test: how much did my trip from Belgium to Istanbul including local transport hurt the planet? The result was striking. I made an infographic to summarize the inputs and most important results.

Infographic of the travel footprint of my Istanbul trip

Infographic of the travel footprint of my Istanbul trip

It was quite shocking to learn that the transportation of this two-week trip alone took a bite of 20% out of my carbon budget. The carbon budget is what I can emit, according to the IPCC, to be on track for no more than 2°C global warming by 2100. I further found out that taking the taxi from the airport to the hotel was the most carbon intensive means of transportation, followed by the flight from Brussels to Istanbul. The difference is of course that I travelled around 4600 kilometers by plane and only 55 kilometers by taxi. The bus trips turned out to be the least carbon intensive way of moving around. But if Turkey would have had the same energy mix as France, the metro would have won that title — the carbon intensity of electricty is very low in France because of the nuclear power. During the research I made a graph of the carbon intensity per kilometer for some of the means of transport, which can serve has a first guiding tool in choosing your way of traveling.

Chart of greenhouse gas emissions of typical means of travel (based on data from DEFRA and LIPASTO)

Chart of greenhouse gas emissions of typical means of travel (based on data from DEFRA and LIPASTO)

The biggest lessons from playing around with the data were:

  • taking a taxi as a single passenger, or a car with only one person are most carbon intensive
  • taking a plane is devastating, since it is nearly as carbon intensive as being a single person in a car but you travel much longer distances
  • taking an electric train or metro is often a good idea, unless you are living in a country with a mainly coal-fired power generation (such as Poland)
  • taking a coach bus has a very low footprint

With this in mind, I started planning my next trip. I now wanted to travel with a minimal ecological footprint, but still fulfill the two remaining items on my bucket list for the summer of 2015: attending the Climate Launchpad competition in Amsterdam and doing a surf camp in France or Spain. To make things even more complicated, I had to remember my budget constraints. I used the Travel Carbon Footprint calculator to estimate the footprint of different ways to realize my plans. It was pretty clear that I had to avoid taking the plane. I finally choose to do everything by long-distance bus, because it had the lowest footprint, it was enormously cheap (especially because I was arranging everything last minute) and I didn’t have to worry about luggage restrictions. The final footprint is around 2,20% of my yearly carbon budget. If I would have chosen a less time-consuming alternative, e.g. taking the train to Amsterdam and a plane to the South of France, it was at least five times more carbon intensive. So for me it was worth the long hours on a bus.

If you are curious about your own travel footprint of last summer, I have good news for you. You can calculate your own footprint now as well, I made the first version of the calculator available for you on the Shift website! Be sure to first read the manual so you know what input is expected from you and what the results really mean. I plan to further upgrade the calculator in the future and keep the data up to date. You can always leave a suggestion for new functionalities as well, or leave a question.

And to assure you: I had an awesome time both in Amsterdam and during my surf trip in the South-West of France. For me, it was the proof that travelling and exploring can be cheap and good for the environment without compromising too much. I hope the calculator will help you choosing your transportation means during the planning of future trips! And don’t forget: transport often is a huge part of your travel footprint, but not the only one. Eat, shop, sleep and enjoy your destination without leaving traces…only good memories.

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