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Is low-carbon society possible?

Introduction
Increasingly, rising carbons are troubling global societies such that the search for innovative social solutions to sustainably decarbonise economic systems to lessen the carbon impacts on different human societies has intensified (Otto et al., 2017; Obama, 2017; Loftus et al., 2015). Decarbonisation is now a topical environmental issue because seeding sustainability through conventional economic models did not yield sustained gains shown by the inability to do away with poverty and hunger (Sachs et al., 2017), and to clean toxic carbons from the atmosphere (Hansen et al., 2007) – conditions that instigated why socio-ecological sustainability must be reconciled with economic growth (Hulme, 2009). Despite significant evidences that prove that carbons are killing earthworms, peoples and phytospecies thereby putting the future at risk (Stockholm Memorandum, 2011), the public is often confronted with dubious climate misinformation needing inoculation  (Milfont et al., 2017; Linden et al., 2017). The overriding public view, however, agrees to sustainable decarbonisation to heal carbon ills.

Between hope and realism
A critical assessment of a gamut of challenges posed by anthropogenic, geochemical and biophysical forces on the earth’s climate system demonstrates that a complete decarbonisation is impossible. A dare mission not to begin with! Deforestation, fossil-fuel drilling and coal mining are continuing. As Sachs (2014) ascertains, ‘the world continues to explore, develop, extract and burn fossil-fuels at a rate that is increasing rapidly’. The continued reliance on fossil-fuel reaches a point where finding alternative energy (like renewable energy) to reduce CO2 was not just a dream but also a hopeless situation. In the 1980s, the technology to explore solar energy resources, for example, was in ‘primitive’ state (Clarke, 1985:127). Even three decades after Clarke alluded to the technological saddle, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA) lately attests to the slow transition towards new energy technologies. It states that ‘the goal of establishing a renewable low-carbon energy technology system on global scale remains elusive, with modern renewables jointly, accounting for 0.7 per cent of primary energy, compared to fossil-fuels’ share of 81 per cent in 2008’ (UN-DESA, 2012). The renewables trend was observed in the first decade of the 21st century. Is the disjointed nexus of technology and renewable energy the same today? No! Solar and wind energy technologies are progressively rising to the top of energy growth on the international and domestic markets (International Energy Agency, 2016; Mileva et al., 2016).

Low-carbon progresses and breakthroughs
The transition to low-carbon society is a development goal of almost every country (Napp et al., 2017; JICA, 2016; Sachs et al., 2017) and a number of interventions have been initiated to stabilise or decouple CO2 in energy system, which yielded some results globally (Liebenthal, 2002; Obama, 2017). Sweden represents an excellent example of large-scale decarbonisation. In ‘2003, 26% of all the energy consumed [in Sweden] came from renewable sources – the EU average was 6%. Only 32% of the energy came from oil – down from 77% in 1970’ (Vidal, 2006). This year Sweden is among a few countries that received ‘green rating’ indicative of progress towards achieving SDG#7 (Sachs et al., 2017). Is this the only hopeful case? The ‘winds of transformation’ in terms of decarbonisation also reflected through the ‘concrete’ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions in China, Brazil and India (Rockström and Schellnhuber, 2015). From the opinion of these authors, India aimed to increase ‘renewable energy systems capacity’; Brazil pledged to ‘practically exterminate forest destruction’ and China commenced ‘peaking of coal-based power production before 2020’ (Rockström and Schellnhuber, 2015). Also, Germany had constituted an ambitious ‘energy transition policy’ to generate 80% of energy requirements from renewable energy sources by 2050 (Brick and Thernstrom, 2016). Developing countries can learn from Brazil or Sweden’s formation of intensive scientific strategies and technological energy solutions to tip socio-economic systems towards a fossil-fuel-free society.SD5

The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) is working with several organisations and national governments through its model of an Inclusive and Sustainable Industrial Development (ISID) and the National Cleaner Production Centres to decouple emissions from industrial environments in developing and emerging countries. The Global Environment Facility was able to raise US$4.5 billion, in the last millennium, to transfer knowledge and technologies to promote ‘energy efficiency, the use of renewable energy, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions’ in developing countries (World Bank, 1999:133). Governmental agencies and development partners implemented ‘renewable energy’ projects in Central America and Caribbean region like Honduras to cut down fossil-fuel consumption (JICA, 2016:50).

Question of values and ingenuity
Choosing alternative development techniques (Sen, 1960), for example, by replacing fossil-fuel with renewable energy to propel economic growth need to utilise human values in (re)building social structures, capacities, markets and consumer behaviours linked to the new energy. Human values ought to inform sustainability leadership and good governance of renewable energy resources and social institutions in eliminating carbon challenges. As long as challenges exist, there is also optimistic perspective that throughout history development challenges, including climate change never deters humans from applying scientific knowledge and employing human values to safeguard planetary resources. Chakrabarty (2009:216) recounts how ‘human civilization surely did not begin on condition that, one day in history, man would have to shift from wood to coal and from coal to petroleum and gases’. Today, many nations are benefiting from solar and wind energy technologies suggestive that the transition to low-carbon society is definitely happening but at a slow pace. A concerted effort from both the public and private sectors is urgently needed to fast-force the processes of sustainable decarbonisation.

References

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Ecodesign, sustainability and the world’s rising temperatures

In a typical human settlement in the global South, the reports of the United Nations, World Bank and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change might not be necessary to establish scientific evidence of rising temperatures triggered by excessive greenhouse gases (GHGs). Human-induced climate threats are clear – collapse of ant colonies, visibly eroded coastscapes, biodiversity loss, and deficits of food, income and energy. The latest sign of ravaging climate troubles point to the view that decarbonisation is inevitable. High toxicity level of carbons in industrial production or consumption processes must be collectively worked on. One of the underrated but innovative approaches to do this is ecodesign. Can ecodesign tips minor pores of bigger global change solutions like the well-thought Carbon Law brilliantly being championed by some of the world’s finest Climate Scientists? Can’t ecodesign emit sustainability solutions to help the world’s rising temperatures? The ecodesign centres, comprising OVAM and Pole Eco-conception (Belgium), Effizienz-Agentur, NRW (Germany), EA (Switzerland), Ihobe (Spain) and Ecodesign Centre (UK) as well as the Auckland Council on Ecodesign and the EcoDesign Initiative in South Africa are all promoting greener ideals and actions through ecodesign.

When I first heard the term ‘ecodesign’ during a learning session in the Hungarian city of Budapest, my mind was that it might connote how land-use activities could be re-ordered to put ecosystem resources to good use. I sensed similar thought when I participated in another event on ‘Promoting eco-entrepreneurship in Africa’ under the SWITCH Africa Green programme jointly organised by EU (UNEP, UNDP and UNOPS) from 16-18, March 2017 in Kumasi. Although these were two distinct events, during each of them, I asked myself: ‘how could the 1.5oC or 2.0oC world benefit from ecodesign?’ I expected to hear fresh ideas and tools of how to geospatially virtualise and conically trim Mt Everest, watch videos of elephants in Ghana’s Mole Park, Kalahari Conservation Sites of Botswana and Namibia, retrofitted Amazon biosphere and, of course, aesthetically adorned City Hall of Stockholm. But, I was naïve. So wrong! The concept of ecodesign embraces a range of social issues and technical principles, including ‘durability’, using ‘non-toxic materials’, ‘recycling’ and ensuring product design is ‘fair and user-centered’. The later principle means that designing a product, whether in an industry or not, must be about people. This is the rationale why ecodesign often rewires social, economic and environmental dimensions of circular, linear, performance, green, sharing and sustainable economies far beyond land-use practices. In ecodesign interventions, “green walls” are not always enough because the understanding is that the real value of a product for public consumption is not seen in the virtual imagery of the product. Is it not that “the smell is good but the content may be toxic”? Decoupling the content of a product to be free of toxicity is required in the fight against climate change.

As Frank O’Connor would not completely disagree, designing ‘can influence the way people consume, use, behave … live’ in different living conditions. How solutions are expertly designed can have multiplier effects on the speed and scale at which climate troubles can be monitored and reduced through public consumption. Ecodesign is an ‘approach to designing products and services that aim to reduce environmental impacts over full life cycle, 80% of which are determined at the design state.’ Compare to conventional design, ecodesign places strong emphasis on strengthening socio-ecological systems, remanufacturing by-products and innovating renewable energy. Thus, ecodesign goes with eco-innovation to enhance eco-efficiency and resource sustainability, which are at the heart of green economy. In the manufacturing sector, ecodesign uses the right mix of ingredients to come out with consumable or material goods that are not harmful to humans and the environment and, at the same time, generate profits. How sure are we about the quality of the food we eat, sunglass, ear ring, football jersey, and phone handsets? Is the bed or kettle we use carbon-compensated? Is the footwear or e-waste toxic-free? Keeping down atmospheric temperature from escalating suggests that ecodesigning must lead to decoupling production systems or stopping CO2 emitted through consumerism not to interrupt the earth’s climate systems.

Many people tend to confuse ecodesign with geodesign. It is important to get this right. These two approaches are not the same in practice. Theoretically, both approaches recognise sustainability as a common purpose for benchmarking and monitoring the interactions of product, people and planet. That is why industrially ecodesigning a product for the arctic region varies from designing same for the deserts or savannas. Yet, in all regions, ecodesign aims to build resilience in whatever way possible to contribute to averting the earth’s climate systems from crossing “critical tipping point”. Accordingly, ecodesign needs to inform resource utilisation, manufacturing, lifestyles and services. This includes ensuring that ecodesigning a product is preceded by researching real needs of communities, groups and institutions to work out greener solutions that are not inimical to the very goal for which the solutions are formed. Children might be disadvantaged if those who design products for them do not consult them or their parents in the product design processes.

The meaning is that ecodesign is eco-inclusive and promotes sustainable consumption of both renewable and non-renewable resources to satisfy full needs of humans without damaging the natural environments. It is applicable in conserving biodiversity, aviation, mining, ecoparks, fishing/farming, railway, chemical industry and cement production. What about built environment, music and film industries? Ecodesign encourages greener labels and eco-certification of products from forest, sea, desert or solar origins – utilising less forest product equals less deforestation hence less climate risks. By this, ecodesign engages as many actors and customers as possible in the processes of production, distribution and consumption that allow the actors to minimise product impacts on ecosystem destruction. Instead of transporting 500,000 tonnes of food across three megacities, using 4.5 barrels of fossil fuels, ecopackaging the food can increase the total volume of the food in transit by 45%. Additional use of 2.25 barrels is avoided and CO2e is cut by 1.7% margin. In this case, the benefits of ecodesign are not only reflected in lowering GHGs but also minimizing material flows, saving energy, reducing cost and improving incomes.

Like industrial energy systems, ecodesign can be incorporated into planning, upgrading and rebuilding cities for the future – relevant approach to invest in. Urban population is not going to decline in years to come. Urban spaces will continue to be squeezed. More people will convert carbon-absorbing spaces and species to make living and, in the end, generate extra CO2. Urban waste in all its forms (solid, liquid, e-waste, etc.) will affect quality of urban lives and increase severity of climate risks like foods. What can ecodesign do in this situation? Ecodesign does not seek to provide every remedy in complex situations of city congestion, resource scarcity and climate change but to play a part in creating comfort, livability and sustainability. The critical need to stop climate troubles is a strong basis to influence climate knowledge, governance and policy of why climate-oriented ecodesign has to be financed and supported alongside more scientifically convincing and comprehensive solutions such as the Carbon Law. This is extremely important if sustainable decarbonisation is to be achieved.

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