UN summits, flying, decisions, decisions, decisions: or, how we think we change the world.

27th April 2012 by

I’m on a bit of a 90s kick at the moment – dungarees, lots of plaid, long straggly hair, and Grandmaster Flash on the stereo.

And it’s not just me feeling nostalgic, even the United Nations (UN) is rewinding to the 90s! You might not remember (I was only nine), but in 1992 the UN held its first ever conference on environment and development, otherwise known as the Rio Earth Summit. Lots of things came out of this conference, including an agreement on the Climate Change Convention (which in turn led to the Kyoto Protocol), and an agreement to “not carry out any activities on the lands of indigenous peoples that would cause environmental degradation or that would be culturally inappropriate”.

In other words, it was at this conference that the world set standards for itself on how to develop in a sustainable way. Twenty years on we are, of course, struggling to meet these standards. Every day brings another headline about some environmental challenge or injustice that is happening somewhere in the world. The 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, where we had hoped to find solutions for many of these challenges, was widely accepted as a failure. It seems that we need another boost of inspiration, determination, optimism, and motivation to get things moving again in the right direction.

Cue the Rio Earth Summit that’s happening this June, 20 years after the original (also known as Rio+20)! At this conference, the UN aims to get Heads of State and other bigwigs together, to assess how progress is going towards internationally agreed commitments, and to secure further political commitments to sustainable development. They will also be negotiating on two main themes, which are… drumroll….

- Green Economy in the context of Poverty Eradication and Sustainable Development

- Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development

It’s not only bigwigs that will be there at this conference. Lots of representatives from ‘Civil Society’ will be there too, including NGOs, indigenous peoples, farmers, and an estimated 2000 young people! You can bet your bottom dollar that there will be a ton of lobbyists from business and industry too.

So, why am I telling you all this? Firstly, knowledge is power! And secondly, I will be one of the 2000 young people going to the conference! I’ll be running workshops for the youth there on building green jobs alliances, I’ll be following the negotiations, talking to our government’s negotiators, trying to get media coverage and blogging. I’ll be learning lots too and bringing lessons and stories back to the UK.

But, it takes a lot of carbon to get to Rio. Two tonnes, if you’re flying (which I am). Here at Otesha, we have a really clear travel policy which states that ‘All long-haul trips are made overland if possible. Flights are only taken as a last resort when no other transportation options are available and when the benefit of the trip is clear.’ Since travelling to Rio overland is super, super difficult (although you can read about our friend Lucy Gilliam, who is on an Edwardian sailboat to Rio as we speak – wow!), we had to make a consensus decision as a team about whether we thought this trip to Rio would be of clear benefit – to the people that I’d meet, to those who would read my blogs and learn about the summit’s progress, and to us as an organisation by bringing back learnings and contacts.

It was a really, really difficult conversation. We have a diverse set of beliefs here at Otesha, even if they are all rooted in the same principles. Like most people in this movement, we all differ slightly in what we think will create change, and how we should get there. Eventually, however, we decided that this was a pretty incredible and unique opportunity. It has been 20 years since the last summit, and who knows when the next one will be? Plus, when we co-coordinated the first ever UK youth delegation to the climate negotiations in Poland back in 2008, we created some pretty kick-ass youth campaigners and organisers as a result. I’m not sure if you can ever judge that one flight or another is more ‘worthwhile’, but we hope that being involved in this process will make a difference.

The exciting bit is, even though we don’t really believe in the concept of ‘carbon offsetting’ (see parody site Cheat Neutral for a good explanation of why) we are going to ‘spend a significant amount of time and money doing carbon-reducing activities’ (another bit of our travel policy). After lots of discussion and ideas, we’ve come up with a three-part plan.

Part 1: We are going to spend £50 on buying pollution permits from Sandbag, who take excess carbon credits out of the EU Emissions Trading System. We are also going to donate £50 to a community project through Global Giving.

Part 2: We are going to go out as a team and spend a day planting trees in our local community. We might buy a tree pack, or volunteer with Trees for Cities or BTCV.

Part 3: I’m going to do a 30-day vegan challenge before I go to Rio, and other staff members might join me! A vegan diet is a lot less carbon intensive, but I’ve never tried it before so I’m a little nervous. If I can go longer I will, I just wanted to set myself an achievable goal first!

I will be updating on how our three-part plan goes, and of course, this blog will be inundated with updates and learnings from Rio come June. So keep your eyes peeled, and vegan cookbooks at the ready!

Up in the air!

1st July 2011 by

Eluned is travelling to India to volunteer with Performers without Borders. After a month of train travelling and many months of journey planning, Eluned finds herself aboard a plane for the final leg of her journey.

On the plane
As we sit on the runway at Tashkent airport, I look around at the other passengers settling into their seats. Most of them look bored and non-plussed. When we eventually set off, I strain and wriggle in my seat, trying to get a look out of the window from where I´m sitting in the centre aisle. I´m puzzled to see that everyone else is reading magazines, staring at the seat in front of them, or plugging in their headphones and falling asleep.

No one seems to be in the least bit amazed about the fact that we will soon be forging our way through the atmosphere, travelling thousands of feet above the Earth. In fact, the only person who seems remotely as excited as me is the toddler bouncing up and down on their seat in front! The plane tips into the air and my head and stomach fly away momentarily before I rise up to meet them.

It seems a strange place for our society to have reached, and it strikes me as quite sad, where something really quite miraculous is – at least for the richest fraction of the world – taken as commonplace and boring. Part of my problem with this type of transport is that people do it without thinking twice, either about how amazing it is, or about the big impact it will have. Not only that, but people seem to have forgotten the fascination with not just the destination, but the journey. For me, the train ride from London to Tashkent itself was every bit as exciting and as memorable an experience as each country I stepped out into. It was kind of like meeting new friends in a cosy cinema to watch a live documentary of the world going by.

What’s the problem with flying?
Air travel can be uniquely harmful, because it releases gases directly into the upper atmosphere. It is one of the most significant ways a single person can contribute to climate change.

There are three gases emitted by aircraft which contribute to global warming: water vapour, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The combined effect of the gases on global warming can be 2-5 times as bad as carbon dioxide alone. Because they are released high into the atmosphere, they do far more damage than they would on the ground.

To put it in context, on a return trip from the UK to New Zealand you would add approximately 12 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more than the average British person emits in a whole year. If you flew from London to Paris your emissions would be 244kg of CO2 – to go by train would produce 91% less!

In other words, in a single plane trip you could contribute more to global warming than the total of all your other activities in a whole year. Even if you do all you can to reduce your “carbon footprint” (the amount of carbon emissions you produce) in other areas of your lifestyle, and are careful about the way you choose to eat, power and heat your home, consume and dispose of goods, making a flight can quite easily counteract all of it – just like that.

The big C.C.
It can be hard to make the idea of climate change real, to think how what I am/ you are doing every day, now, relates to the climate of the whole world. But what it means is very real, and can be really quite scary.

For me, there are several reasons why I wanted to try travel to India and back overland. Firstly, because by flying I would contribute way more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than I am comfortable with. I try to do what I can to live in a way which doesn´t harm other people or the world around us. For me, flying to India would undermine a lot of the work I would be doing once I got there. It is all the more pertinent because I am travelling to a developing country. Whilst the richest 7% of the global population (which includes the British) create 50% of global carbon emissions – as well as making the majority of flights – it is the developing world which will be the most vulnerable to climate change. It has been estimated by the UK Department of International Development that climate change will cancel the benefits of western aid and debt relief.
Over all, flying to India and back would produce approximately 5 tonnes of CO2, more than it takes to heat a  UK house for an entire year. The same trip taken directly by train would produce just over 1 tonne of CO2.

Because of bureaucratic obstacles, a tight timetable and safety concerns, sadly I chose to fly part of the way on the outward trip. I therefore estimate my carbon output (including a return journey, hopefully all overland but the long way round) to be 1.7 tonnes of CO2. The carbon saving I will make by traveling this way is therefore in the region of 3.3. tonnes (I would really like to make a comparison between this and other activities to make it more real and show how much it really is, so if anyone has any suggestions of where I can find something like this, please get in touch!!).

I also want to travel overland because – wow, what an experience! Already, I have taken in so much more of the landscape, and made so many more real connections with people than I would by sitting in an air conditioned container making jet trails over their heads. For me travel is not just about a single place to go to and come back from, but about the journey getting there. I want to make the most of the opportunity to discover more about the world, but to do it without causing too much damage. (Also, as I discovered during this flight, although I may love being above the clouds and appreciate the miracle of flying, the whole package of aviation, from the arduous check in, the tedium of sterile airports to the hours without a view for those without window seats can be distinctly boring).

Another Way is Possible
Finally, I wanted to attempt this trip overland because I genuinely believe that lower-carbon travel is a much better way forward than sitting comfortably and watching business as usual mess up things for myself and for people that I love and care about. I really hope that in doing it, maybe someone else´s eyes will be opened to the possibilities, and that a few more minds will become aware of how much difference a flight can make.

If it seems like things are unlikely to change, just consider that only 50 years ago, there were no commercial airlines. Things do change. Internet and global communications make planning overland travel a whole lot more straightforward. Within Europe, efficient train connections make overland travel a very viable option, whilst outside of Europe train cheaper train prices can make long journeys less pricey than you might think. Websites like www.seat61.com make planning a lot more easy, whilst a new system to be released soon on www.loco2.co.uk aims to facilitate train booking for journeys in Europe – and to find the cheapest routes. It would make me so happy to know that my trip and this blog had inspired someone to take on the adventure of riding overland, instead of flying.

Before making your next flight, think about its impact. Ask yourself, “hang on, do I have to take this flight? Or does it just seem more convenient? What about doing things differently?”. It is your choice, and there are alternatives – alternatives that can be really amazing! I hope that reading this blog might inspire you to stop and reconsider. Above all, I have to say, there´s nothing quite like a good long train ride =:0).

Holiday in the UK

3rd July 2009 by

We challenge you to send us a postcard, from the UK.

It’s that time again, summertime. We’re all very tempted to pack our bags, jump on a packed flight and catch some sun on a package holiday. Completely forgetting that it’s summertime here too, and the Met Office has promised us a scorcher. So go on, holiday in the UK.

We’re not often particularly patriotic, but here’s why Britain is best:

  • you don’t have to speak English loudly and slowly (often), or be embarrassed by your fellow holiday makers speaking English loudly and slowly
  • trains are great (see our top ten tips for train travel)
  • it’s cheaper financially
  • and environmentally
  • you’ve almost definitely got friends and family in other parts of the UK that you don’t visit enough, kill two birds and take a free accomodation, guilt free holiday
  • the UK is full of beautiful campsites
  • and lovely B and Bs
  • and wonderful places to Woof
  • there must be more, but you get the picture

Head out of your usual abode and across this fair isle of ours.

Please send us a postcard (or even an email, to jo@otesha.org.uk) when you get there. Here’s our address.


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