Three international science organisations have announced that 2016 will be the International Year of Global Understanding, aiming to show “how to translate scientific insight into more sustainable lifestyles”
The International Year of Global Understanding (IYGU) initiative, announced at the World Social Science Forum in Durban earlier this month, will include research projects, education programmes and information campaigns, running throughout the year and across the globe.
The year is intended to emphasise the link between local, everyday actions and global problems such as climate change and food security — with a focus on practical, science-based solutions, said the organisers in a statement. “On each day in 2016, the IYGU will highlight a change to an everyday activity that has been scientifically proven to be more sustainable than current practice,” the statement says.
“On each day in 2016, the IYGU will highlight a change to an everyday activity that has been scientifically proven to be more sustainable than current practice.”
The initiative is being backed by the International Council for Science, the International Social Science Council and the International Council for Philosophy and Human Sciences.
“I hope the focus of the year will not be so much about generating more research grants for Northern institutions, but about translating existing research and helping to get it into the hands of poor communities and development practitioners,” says Rob Cartridge, head of practical answers at the NGO Practical Action in the UK.
Around 50 regional centres across all continents will organise local events, says the IYGU’s executive director Benno Werlen, a geographer at Germany’s Friedrich Schiller University in Jena. The project will cost around €1.5 million (around £1.1m), says Werlen, adding that he is seeking sponsors for some of that sum.
Proposed by the International Geographical Union, the IYGU does not have the status of an international year observed by the UN. The initiative aims to “raise the voice of science” and is the “only international year [on the horizon] that has the support of the scientific community,” says Werlen.
Several prominent scientists and policymakers have expressed their support, including chemistry Nobel laureate Yuan Tseh-Lee from Taiwan, who praised the IGYU as a useful counterpoint to top-down policy discussions.
“While global negotiations on climate attack the sustainability crisis from above, the IYGU complements them beautifully with coordinated solutions from below — by getting individuals to understand and change their everyday habits,” Tseh-Lee said in a statement.
Anantha Duraiappah, director of UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development in India, says the year could be a good opportunity for scientists to work with policymakers and generate interest in science among students.
But he points out that it is hard for this kind of project to attract attention. “I really think that there is an overkill of these events and the world is undergoing an International Day, Year and Decade fatigue,” Duraiappah says.
Meanwhile, Cartridge sounds an optimistic note. International years “can be a good way to galvanise action and highlight an issue,” he says.
“This one seems to be coming with a range of important backers, so fingers crossed it will deliver some real benefits.”
Rather than waiting around to see what happens at the Paris climate talks in December, a group of European creatives got together and came up with some low-tech solutions to the world’s environmental problems. Elsa Pereria reports from POC21
You’ve got to hand it to POC21 – who? A bunch of eco-geeks who have such little faith in COP21 – December’s UN climate change convention in Paris – that they were never going to wait to see how it goes.
So, in August and September at Château de Millemont on the outskirts of Paris, more than 100 makers, designers, engineers and scientists took part in a five-week project aimed at producing ideas and “overcoming our destructive consumer culture to make open-source, sustainable products the new normal”.
POC21 (which stands for stands for Proof Of Concept) is the brainchild of two gloriously rebellious, open-source hack collectives who are obsessed with finding small-scale DIY solutions to the biggest problems: Germany’s OpenState group and France’s Ouishare. The challenge? To come up with 12 prototypes for alternatives to fossil fuels.
All of the solutions are designed to be affordable and freely available. Proof that you don’t need to be a world leader to act on global warming. Check out the five highlights from the event:
1. Solar-OSE: energy
The Solar-OSE is a French-made solar concentrator which harnesses solar energy in the form of steam. Four square metres of mirror strips on the ground reflect sun rays onto a receiving panel six feet overhead. This in turn heats a black pipe full of water. “Heat power for food processing, textile and chemical industries account for ten percent of our energy requirements,” says François Veynand of Open Source Ecology. “Far cheaper to use solar power than to stock up on, say, gas.” Conceived for small businesses, Solar-OSE produces far more than just steam. With production costs at around €1,500 (£1,100) it enables farmers, by means of thermal energy, to extract essential oils, sterilize containers or pasteurise milk or apple juice.
2. SunZilla: the portable solar generator
Created by a group of friends from Berlin, SunZilla replaces the diesel of ordinary generators with sun rays. The concept is remarkably simple. Two boxes, one of which contains the batteries and the other the solar panels. Add a plug and a switch, and you’ve got your finished product. “Our aim was to make it super-simple, such that you don’t need a technician to demonstrate how it works,” explains co-creator Vivien Barnier. “And because it’s built according to a very flexible modular system, it can be adapted to your needs.” The smallest model provides around 150 watts: enough to charge some 20 mobile phones and light up three rooms, all thanks to solar energy. For the time being these young engineers are primarily selling the generator to festivals, but they’re not discounting the possibility of exporting it to communities with little or no electricity.
3. Bicitractor: the pedal-operated tractor
The people behind the gears, cogs and sprockets of this gigantic wood-and-iron engine go by the name Farming Soul. Dreamed up by French farmers and cultivators, the collective develops pedal-operated agricultural vehicles. Aimed at small or medium scale farms, the Bicitractor (a tractor powered by pedalling) can be used to plough, dig up or even weed the earth, thanks to a tool module that’s attached to the tractor and connected to a voilier (yacht) system. “Yesterday we were testing the machine in a field, and instead of having to cross the field four times – as you would if you were weeding it by hand – we did it in one,” says inventor Jean-Pierre Comte. “You go around four times faster by tractor, you’re comfortable and you don’t have to put any pressure on your arms or back.” All in all, a cheap, clean alternative to ordinary tractors which can cost around £20,000, compared to £700 for the Bicitractor.
4. Kitchen B: the kitchen of the future
Did you know that it’s a bad idea to store potatoes next to onions? Or that burying carrots in sand can help preserve them for almost a month? Developed by four French designers, Kitchen B pitches itself as an educational project that aims to raise awareness of our bad food storage habits. “It’s important to understand that the convention of putting everything in the fridge is no good,” say the Kitchen B team. “Not that we’re suggesting that you need to blow up your fridge. We just need to throw some new solutions out there.”
5. Faircap: the universal filter
It was on a trip to the Amazon that a great conundrum dawned on Mauricio Cordova: although humans can’t live without water, millions of people have to go without access to drinking water. That’s when he struck on the idea behind Faircap, an antibacterial filter that can be adapted to fit the neck of any bottle. It consists of two parts: activated carbon to purify the water, and a plastic membrane (which can be printed with a 3D printer) to catch the chlorine and other bacteria. These essential materials are cheap so Cordova is able to keep the cost of Faircap down, while ensuring it is both environment-friendly and beneficial to small-scale producers. “My goal,” explains Cordova, “is to make the filter cheaper than bottled water.” The targeted production cost is just €1 (75p) per cap.
The International Solar Alliance, announced by India at the Paris climate conference, brings together 120 countries to support the expansion of solar technologies in the developing world
The cost of solar cells has decreased spectacularly over the past four decades, and the trend seems likely to continue. Solar energy has moved from a niche market for providing power in remote places (at the very beginning in 1958 to space satellites) to a mainstream technology which feeds into the national grid.
Most richer countries have been supporting solar power for some time and the rest of the world is now catching up, turning to solar not only for energy access in remote areas but to power cities. Emerging countries such as China, India, Brazil, Thailand, South Africa, Morocco and Egypt are investing in large solar plants with ambitious targets. In developing countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal and Ghana, solar farms or the large roll-out of solar home systems are a solution to unreliable and insufficient electricity supplies.
Large solar farms can be built in just a few months – compared to several years for a coal plant and even longer for a nuclear plant – without presenting massive environmental and health risks. Modular decentralised generation with solar is a way to increase access to energy while still remaining on top of rapidly increasing appetites for electricity.
Culture of innovation
This alliance could boost the solar market in the global south by accelerating the circulation of knowledge, facilitating technology transfer and securing investments. Such a partnership would aim to create a common culture among people working in solar energy. Permanent innovation is the key to success in a field where technologies evolve fast and where norms and standards are not yet established. So an alliance could help countries exchange policy ideas while benchmarking performance against each other.
Indeed in developing countries, where regulations and regimes tend to be less stable, investments suffer from a perceived risk. Given that the initial construction of solar plants makes up most of their cost (sunlight, after all, is free so ongoing expenses are minimal), the business model requires them to run for a long period. High risk means higher costs of financing the initial investment. Countries with well-designed regulatory frameworks and policies can reduce risk and attract investors.
The alliance could also support a network of universities and local research centres in each country to capitalise on local experience and build knowledge. Research and development can then more easily target the specific needs of developing countries.
… and the real politics of renewables
The intensification of globalisation and competition between technology firms and utilities is sparking a revolution in the electricity sector which could result in a new world of energy providers. A number of countries are keen to position themselves as leaders.
For the moment, both China and India want massive investments in solar only on top of further investments in new coal and gas plants. They need to make their growth less carbon intensive – but do not yet consider solar power as a complete substitute for fossil fuels.
But renewables accounted for nearly half of all new power generation capacity across the world last year. As the cost of solar power is falling to the same level as traditional energy supplies all over the world, some players in the electricity sector are – willingly or not – shifting away from fossil fuels. The decarbonisation of the electricity sector may be not just an empty political pledge, but an economic necessity.
In 2012 we reported on the beginning of Africa’s Great Green Wall project. Four years on, we explore how planting trees has nurtured communities as well as the land
Since the 1950s, people have dreamt of planting a vast wall of trees to hold back the Sahara desert’s spreading sands.
Over the past decade, that vision has begun to become a reality with 11 sub-Saharan nations joining with the EU, the UN and the African Union to build a ‘Great Green Wall’ that will span the continent – from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east.
Since we reported on the Great Green Wall when planting began in 2012, significant progress has been made. In Senegal, 11 million trees have been planted; in Nigeria, 20,000 rural jobs have been created, and in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, around two million seeds and seedlings have been planted, restoring 2,500 hectares of land.
The Great Green Wall is about more than just planting and counting trees, it is about building resilience in communities
“Today the Great Green Wall stands as one of the most innovative and daring endeavours in human history,” said African Union spokeswoman Janet Edeme.
It is hoped that the 4,400-mile green belt will halt desertification which could otherwise force an estimated 60 million Africans to leave their homes, sparking mass migrations and even driving people to join extremist groups such as Boko Haram.
“The Great Green Wall is about more than just planting and counting trees, it is about building resilience in communities and developing sustainable projects to give young people reasons to stay,” Camilla Nordheim-Larsen of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification told reporters.
Main image: The shifting sands of the Sahara could be held back, with planting for the Great Green Wall under way. Credit: Cliff Williams
In 2006, the people of Ashton Hayes banded together to tackle climate change. A decade on, they have cut their carbon emissions almost in half and leaders from far and wide are stopping by to learn more
Frustrated by the lack of strong environmental action by political leaders, 10 years ago, residents in a Cheshire village decided to take matters into their own hands. The ambition was bold: Ashton Hayes would become the first carbon neutral village in England.
“We want to show our children, grandchildren and future generations that we have done our best to stop Ashton Hayes contributing to global warming,” then parish council leader Naomi Deynem said in 2006, at the launch of the project.
So far, the village has reduced its carbon emissions by 40 per cent, but beyond the statistics, the measures have captured the world’s attention. More than 200 towns, from those in Norway to places in Taiwan, have visited or been in touch to find lessons worth taking home.
Kate Harrison, an advocate for low impact lifestyles and one of the early members of the Going Carbon Neutral team of residents, says involving people from across the community has been key to the scheme’s success. More than 75 per cent of residents have been involved on some level at least once, while in 2015, 98 per cent of residents said they felt proud of the project’s achievements.
Harrison explains that they united the community around what people could easily contribute, rather than what they were doing wrong. From the outset, the volunteers leading the project pledged to be non-confrontational and non-political.
We want to show our children, grandchildren and future generations that we have done our best to stop Ashton Hayes contributing to global warming
“Instead of telling people what to do, we encouraged them to share ideas or come up with their own,” Harrison explains. “When people took a small action such as lowering thermostats or replacing light bulbs, they realised it was effective, so looked for more they could do. It just shows that anyone, anywhere can adapt ideas to deal with their local or national situations.”
Early efforts focused on behaviour change; interested residents were given tailored advice on ‘quick and cheap wins’ to affordably reduce energy use in their homes. The impact was felt quickly, with the village’s overall carbon emissions dropping by 20 per cent within the first 12 months. However, emission reductions then plateaued over the next two years. To maintain progress, the village needed to produce its own renewable energy.
The opportunity came in 2010 with a £400,000 government grant from the [now finished] Low Carbon Communities Challenge, and a community energy company was established to take the plan to the next level. Solar panels were installed on the roof of Ashton Hayes Primary School, where lessons were already involving pupils in the project, and on a newly built low-carbon sports centre.
“Working with the village primary school was ideal as young people can be inspired to make a difference. They have ‘pester power’ over parents and relatives and, of course, they represent the future,” says fellow Going Carbon Neutral leader Roy Alexander.
As a resident of Ashton Hayes and professor of sustainability at the University of Chester, Alexander helped guide the project. The university has incorporated the scheme into its masters courses and monitored results closely, lending residents’ efforts credibility and accountability. Data and findings are also published online for others to learn from.
While Alexander believes the journey has been just as important as the end goal, he says the ‘big vision’ of carbon neutrality is what has inspired so many. This ambition is now firmly embedded in the official Neighbourhood Plan, and the group’s sights are now set on raising enough money to turn the village pub – currently earmarked to be developed as housing – into a shared, low carbon community asset.
Despite the attention the village has received, those leading the low carbon charge are modest about their success. “There are hundreds of groups across the UK doing similar things,” says Alexander. “It may be easier in geographically defined communities, but suburbs of towns and cities have local identities and a sense of community, so there’s no reason why they can’t do the same thing.
“Individuals and households can achieve a lot, but working together provides a real sense of collective action. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.”