Future global climate institutions

Alex Evans

Any framework for dealing with the climate crisis should be based on a scientifically derived stabilisation target. Such a framework should also distribute the global carbon budget among the world’s nations according to a transparent, equitable formula. To achieve this, global climate institutions will have to change.

In 2009, when David Steven and I embarked on a study for the UK government of future global institutions for tackling climate change, we felt that the world had spent almost nothing investigating the sort of global institutions we’d need in future in order to solve the issue. By comparison, millions of pounds had been invested in understanding the science of climate change — above all through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — and the economics of the issue, especially the Stern Review.

This, we thought, was surprising. In the past, whenever nations or peoples have faced an existential, systemic challenge, the new settlement that follows is almost always marked by new institutions. Think of how national sovereignty evolved out of Europe tearing itself apart in the Thirty Years War during the 17th century, or how the UN emerged, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the Second World War.

It’s already clear that climate change is the defining challenge of our age. Why then is so little thinking underway about the kind of institutions needed to solve it? It’s this nagging question that motivated us to produce our May 2009 paper “An Institutional Architecture for Climate Change”.

We were guided from the outset by two principles. The first was that we didn’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that institutions were the same as organisations. Instead, we liked Douglass North’s definition that institutions are “the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, the humanly-devised constraints that shape human interaction”. He continues: “institutional change shapes the way societies evolve through time and hence is the key to understanding historical change”. That sounded a good starting point to us.

The other principle we wanted to stick to was a really rigorous focus on function over form. As we know only too well, energy spent on reforming the international system all too often gets dissipated in setting up new organisations, closing them down, or otherwise trying to create some sort of perfect international organogram — without necessarily asking what it is we actually need international institutions to achieve.

So, those were the two principles underpinning our study. Which leads on to the question: what do we need international institutions to achieve on climate? David and I argue that the short answer to that question is that they need to send back signals from the future.

Let me explain that phrase. When you look at what determines how policy actors behave on climate change, you realise that how they act today is fundamentally determined by their expectations of what will happen in the future. So if countries — or companies, or citizens — expect a slow transition to a low-carbon world, then it makes sense for them to ‘free-ride’ internationally and to protect incumbents and vested interests. Moreover, given the long investment horizons involved, everyone shares an interest in predictability. If, on balance, people expect a slow transition, then it’s rational for them to reinforce that dynamic by seeking to slow the process down themselves. But if, on the other hand, perceptions tip to the other side — towards expecting a rapid transition to a low-carbon world — then a virtuous circle is much more likely to develop, because actors will have incentives to lead the change, nurture innovators and co-operate internationally.

Where institutions can make a difference, then, is by sending ‘signals from the future’ that shape people’s expectations. Institutions can give people confidence that we are going to solve this problem and, in doing so, create a self-fulfilling prophecy that brings about that very outcome.

This subtle feedback loop shows in microcosm a much wider point about where we are today in terms of international cooperation, with globalisation challenged not only by climate change, but also by the credit crunch, growing resource scarcity, the risk of protectionism and so on. As these and other stresses on globalisation increase, it’s likely that we’ll see either a significant loss of trust in the system, as globalisation retreats and countries focus on narrow, short-term national interests, or a significant increase in trust, as countries move decisively to increase their interdependence and invest in the institutions needed to make globalisation more resilient, sustainable and equitable.

Muddling through in some ways looks the least likely outcome. That’s why we argue that the issue of “signals for the future” is so important, and why we believe international institutions matter so much in this context. How do today’s climate institutions shape up?

Well, let’s start with the good news. Our institutional framework has a clear objective, set out in Article 2 of the UNFCCC: stabilise concentrations of (GHGs) at a safe level that avoids dangerous interference with the climate. That treaty also represents a pretty much universally agreed-upon reference point, with only Iraq, Somalia and Andorra not having ratified it.

Other items on the ‘credit’ side of the institutional ledger include the IPCC, which has been not only a neutral arbiter of the science but also a kind of anchor for the global conversation about climate change; Kyoto’s system of binding targets, plus cap-and-trade, for developed countries; some basic mechanisms for emissions abatement in developing countries, including the Clean Development Mechanism; and methodologies for countries to report on their emissions.

Unfortunately, these elements don’t add up to a clear signal back from the future. Here are a few reasons why not:

First, although we’ve defined stabilisation as the goal, our institutional framework doesn’t actually cohere with that end. We’ve neither quantified, nor even seriously discussed, the level at which GHG concentrations should be stabilised to avoid dangerous climate change, much less agreed a binding global ceiling on GHG levels in the air.

Second, Kyoto’s targets for developed countries weren’t in any way scientifically derived. Instead, they were based on countries’ own political and economic assessments of what they could manage.

Third, the lack of quantified targets for developing countries makes it impossible to forecast overall global emissions with any certainty. On top of that, there’s the problem of ‘carbon leakage,’ so in the UK, for instance, while production of GHGs fell 12.5% between 1990 and 2003, consumption of them grew by 19% over the same period. Why? In effect, it’s because the UK, like other rich countries, has ‘exported’ its dirty industries to the developing world, which then have to pay the cost of investing in clean technologies.

Fourth, Kyoto’s enforcement system is weak. Sanctions on countries that fail to meet their targets are weak; systems for monitoring, reporting and verification are ineffective; and there are no penalties on countries that refuse to join in the first place. Indeed, the fact that the US stayed out of Kyoto is likely to help it to generate a much more generous target this time around.

Fifth, there’s a similar lack of clarity on finance, adaptation and technology.

  • On technology, there are now numerous funds, but they lack clear terms of reference or a sense of exactly what they’re supposed to deliver. The amount of public R&D spent on energy, meanwhile, is half what it was 25 years ago.
  • On adaptation, debate is focusing more on the question of “how much?” than the question of “how?” National Adaptation Plans of Action are highly focused on short-term measures and far less on the challenge of really mainstreaming resilience through development programming.
  • On financing, there’s a lack of clarity over how financing flows on mitigation, adaptation and low-carbon technology cut across each other, and how they relate to other flows like development aid and private-sector investment.

And last but not least, there’s a lack of coherence between climate change and other key policy areas, such as trade, energy, food security, land use and economic stability.

Ultimately, for all that policymakers stress the scale of the climate challenge and the need for radical action, the fact remains that our current institutional set-up is saying something different. In effect, the signal actually being sent back from the future by today’s institutions is that:

  1. The likely impact of climate change will be considerably less than that predicted by the IPCC.
  2. The cost of reducing emissions far exceeds the benefits, while there is little need to insure against catastrophic impacts.
  3. Short-term economic imperatives outweigh longer-term interests, including both economic and, especially, non-economic ones.
  4. The needs of the poor should be given less weight than those of the rich.

All of which poses the question: what would it look like if we had an institutional framework that provided the opposite signal from the future — the unequivocal message that the world was clearly resolved to tackle climate change over the full term of the problem, and that individual countries, companies and citizens should position themselves to get out of carbon as swiftly as possible?

Let’s start by being clear about the three most fundamental functions for the system. It must:

  • Constrain emissions and manage sinks in a way consistent with stabilisation
  • Provide mechanisms to take account of equity, in both the mitigation and the adaptation contexts
  • Include enforcement mechanisms tough enough to make the regime effective and credible

So what might these mean in practice? Well, first and foremost, we think countries will need to agree a quantified, binding stabilisation target as the bedrock of the whole system. Today, we work from the short term — 5-year emission targets — out towards the long term: an aspiration of eventual stabilisation, at some unspecified level.

It’s time to reverse this trend and ensure that what happens today is driven by what needs to happen over the full term of the issue. A defined stabilisation target, like 450 parts per million CO2, would achieve that. And once we have it, we can use it to derive the size of a safe global emissions budget over the same period.

The next question is how to share out this budget. In the scenarios we did for the report, David and I argue that the only way that 192 countries are going to agree on the distribution of emission permits is through some kind of standard allocation formula to reconcile countries’ different equity claims. We call this “the Algorithm”.

At one end of the spectrum, emerging economies like China and Brazil want permits allocated in proportion to historical responsibility; at the other, many developed countries assume that ‘grandfathering’ permits in proportion to GDP is the only feasible approach.

Somewhere in the middle is a compromise, probably with allocations ending up on an equal per-capita basis at the end of a negotiated convergence period.

Even then, the problem with a per-capita allocation is that it’s impossible for developed countries to deliver in the short term, and a tough sell politically. At the same time, it’s also inequitable for poor countries, which receive a disproportionately small share of emissions while convergence to equal per capita equity takes place; these countries are also not rewarded for having low emissions prior to taking on targets.

Happily, there’s quite a lot that policymakers can do to increase equity. One is to make emission permits a tradable property right, so that emissions trading provides compensatory finance flows during the convergence period. Another approach involves directing resource flows through non-market mechanisms, like technology transfer. A third is resource flows for funding adaptation.

But we need to take a far more integrated approach to climate finance than we do today. At present, most of the push on financing is around making adaptation finance additional to the 0.7% of GNP target for development aid. And it’s far from clear to me how we put ourselves on strong ground by arguing on the one hand that adaptation is all about mainstreaming, while on the other insisting on separate financial flows.

More fundamentally, imagine what a truly global cap and trade system, coupled with an equitable allocation algorithm, could do for finance for development. Official Development Assistance is currently worth about $100 billion a year. Emissions trading markets are already worth two-thirds of that level a year — $64 billion in 2008, according to the World Bank — and they’re still in their infancy. Yet because they have no targets and hence own no assets, developing countries are missing out on these markets. Instead, they get the Clean Development Mechanism, which doesn’t deliver real finance for development or real emissions reductions. Such inequity is startling. You couldn’t make it up.

Finally, let me say just a word about enforcement. Our current set-up does not work — not on enforcing targets, not on penalising countries that stay out of the regime and not on checking that financial commitments actually get delivered.

In the long run, David and I argue that a climate deal will have to require an ‘all or nothing’ approach to international participation. Either countries play a full part in the system, and thus have access to international frameworks on finance, trade, development, energy and other resources, and perhaps even security; or they sit outside the international system and are effectively barred from all forms of international co-operation. Carbon default would therefore become as weighty an issue as sovereign debt default or failure to comply with a UN Security Council resolution. Right now, of course, such a scenario seems totally inconceivable, but it does indicate the extent of the shift in understanding that is still needed.

We certainly don’t claim to have all the answers about future climate institutions, nor does our report purport to be a full blueprint. Our aim is simply to start a broader, deeper, more engaged conversation about a dimension of the climate challenge that’s been seriously under-considered. This is also why we call for a ‘Stern Review’–type process to look at climate institutions much more comprehensively. Only when we embark on both of these can we begin to glimpse a real, workable model for our global institutions on the horizon.

Cap & Share: simple is beautiful

Laurence Matthews

Cap & Share is a fair, effective, cheap, empowering and simple way to reduce emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. It could form the basis of a wider global climate framework but how realistic is it to call for its introduction?

Humanity faces many challenges in the current crisis: development issues; global poverty and inequality; security of energy, food and water supplies; and a range of environmental problems which stretches far beyond limiting carbon emissions. Maintaining greenhouse gas concentrations at safe levels is just one requirement for survival but it is a prominent, important and symbolic one. Any response to it needs to be effective and, if possible, efficient in economic terms. But in order to be effective it has to be adopted and this means it must be acceptable in terms of issues such as equity, development agendas and parochial political struggles. If a framework is simple, it can more easily be tested for alignment with these other concerns.

Simplicity has other virtues too. Simplicity is important when rallying emotional support for a measure — no matter what the economic incentives might be. Inspirational ideas are usually simple. Simplicity fosters a feeling of inclusion, rather than the alienation and exclusion that results from discussions by ‘experts’. An insistence on simplicity also forces naysayers to state clearly what they object to, which clarifies the discussion immensely. We are facing a planetary emergency here and we need to be clear-sighted if we are to solve our problems in time.

Simplicity should not be confused with naivety; indeed naivety is often displayed by concentrating on some aspects of a problem in sophisticated detail while completely ignoring others. Concocting elaborations and complications may be useful for addressing technicalities and can be useful for finessing stumbling blocks in negotiations, but this process risks getting out of hand and is prone to being blind to errors which would be elementary to others less immersed in the details. Proponents of a simple system might do well to consent to discussions on elaborations only if the basis for the simple framework is agreed first.

The next section describes Cap & Share, recently selected by the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission as one of its ‘Breakthrough Ideas for the 21st Century’ (SDC 2009). Cap & Share is an example of an effective, fair, efficient and, above all, simple method for capping carbon emissions.

Cap & Share

Cap & Share (C&S) is a system for limiting the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels (Feasta 2008); it is an alternative to carbon rations or carbon taxes. It could work on a global scale, or nationally for a single country’s economy. We’ll return to this later, but for the moment imagine a national scheme. As the name implies, there are two parts to C&S:

Cap: The total carbon emissions are limited (capped) in a simple, no-nonsense way

Share: The huge amounts of money involved are shared equally by the population

There is a trick to each of these. First the cap. This is set in line with scientific advice, at a level each year that will bring concentrations (of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) down to a safe level. But how do we ensure this cap is met? The trick here is to go ‘upstream’. This is often explained (Barnes 2008) by the analogy of watering a lawn with a hosepipe connected to a lawn sprinkler, with lots of small holes spraying water everywhere. If you wanted to save water, you could try to block up all the holes one by one — but wouldn’t it be simpler to turn off the tap a bit? It’s the same with fossil fuels, where the sprinkler holes correspond to the millions of houses, factories and vehicles, each emitting carbon dioxide by burning these fuels. By controlling the supply of fossil fuels coming into the economy (corresponding to the tap) we automatically control the emissions that occur when those fossil fuels are burnt somewhere down the line. So instead of focusing on the emissions, we focus on the fossil fuels themselves. The primary fossil-fuel suppliers (e.g. oil companies) are required to acquire permits in order to introduce fossil fuels into the economy (by importing them or extracting them from the ground). A permit for, say, 1 tonne of carbon dioxide entitles the fossil-fuel supplier to introduce that amount of fossil fuel that will emit 1 tonne when burnt. The number of permits issued equates to the desired cap.

Next, the Share. Since the fossil fuel suppliers have to buy the permits, they will pass on this cost by increasing the fuel price. This flows through the economy (like a carbon tax), making carbon-intensive goods cost more. This sounds like bad news for the consumer. But the trick this time is to share out the money paid by the fossil-fuel suppliers, back to the people, which compensates for the price rises. There are two possible mechanisms for getting the money to the population. In one, the version called Cap & Dividend (Barnes 2008) in the US and based on the Alaska Permanent Fund, permits are auctioned and the auction revenue distributed to the citizens on an equal per capita basis. Under ‘classic’ C&S (Feasta 2008) each adult receives free of charge — say, monthly or annually — a certificate for his or her share. These certificates are then sold to the primary fossil-fuel suppliers (through market intermediaries such as banks) and become the permits. Under ‘classic’ C&S people thus receive certificates instead of money, so that if they should wish to, they can retain (and destroy) a portion of their certificates — and thus are able to reduce the country’s carbon footprint by that amount.

That’s Cap & Share in a nutshell.

To many people, however, the ‘obvious’ mechanism is not Cap & Share but either a carbon tax (discussed below) or a version of cap and trade applied ‘downstream’ where the emissions take place. Such a cap and trade system has two parts, as follows. The first applies to the fossil fuels we buy directly (petrol, gas, coal) and burn ourselves, causing emissions; these direct emissions account for half of our ‘carbon footprint’. For these direct emissions, some form of personal carbon trading is envisaged, typically based on ideas of ‘rationing’ familiar from petrol and food rationing during the Second World War. Personal Carbon Allowances (PCAs) typically involve giving an equal allowance to each adult citizen, and each purchase of petrol, oil or gas is deducted from the allowance (typically using swipe card technology). The other half of our carbon footprint consists of indirect emissions, the ’embedded’ emissions in goods and services, which arise when companies produce these goods and services on our behalf. These indirect emissions are controlled with an Emissions Trading System (ETS) for companies, such as the European Union ETS. (The EU ETS is already up and running, and has had its teething problems; but its faults — lax caps through too many permits being issued, free allocation windfalls to large utility companies, partial coverage only of the economy, leaks through dubious CDM projects — are now widely accepted and these shortcomings are being addressed in the next phase).

Taken together, PCAs and an ETS-like arrangement for companies can constitute an economy-wide scheme; variants have names such as Domestic Tradable Quotas or Tradable Energy Quotas (Fleming 2005). Under the scheme individuals or companies who use more than their allowance can buy extra from those who can make do on less, but the total amount in circulation is finite, set by the cap. This downstream approach is compared with Cap & Share’s upstream approach in research commissioned by Comhar, the Irish sustainable development commission, and carried out by AEA Technology and Cambridge Econometrics (Comhar 2008). C&S came out well from the comparison.

Benefits of Cap & Share

It is worth listing the benefits of C&S because they are so multi-faceted. Firstly, there are some obvious consequences of the way C&S works:


C&S delivers; it is not just an aspiration. Individual countries like the UK and blocs like the EU may have targets (and various institutional arrangements), but so far they have no mechanism to ensure that the targets are achieved. C&S guarantees a cap.


The framework clearly has at its root a simple, robust form of equity. This serves as a focal point for agreement, in the same way that one-person-one-vote serves as the basis for democracy. C&S is exactly as fair as rationing would be, or more so, given the inequity typically built in to the ETS half of such systems.


A typical country will have at most 100 or so fossil-fuel suppliers, so C&S is simple to operate and police. Meanwhile all other companies, and all individuals, are free to go about their lives without the need for swipe cards or carbon accounting, making their decisions based on price alone. Contrast this with the EU ETS, which has been described as ‘more complicated than the German tax system.’


A result of this simplicity is that the system is easy to introduce very quickly — and we don’t have the time to wait another decade before getting started.


This is also a direct result of the simple, upstream nature of the cap.


With scrutiny focused on the small number of fossil-fuel suppliers, there is much less scope for cheating than with a complex system like an ETS.

Next, there is an important political point:


This arises from looking at the winners and losers under C&S. Although the payments to people compensate them for price rises, this is only true on average. If you have a lower carbon footprint than the national average, you will come out ahead: your payments from C&S will more than compensate for any price rises. People with higher than average carbon footprints will be worse off, but the skewed nature of income distributions means that there are many more winners than losers (for the same reason that there are more people on below-average incomes than above-average incomes). There is thus a natural constituency (McKibbin & Wilcoxon 2007) in favour of maintaining a tight cap, to counterbalance the vested interests that would push for a cap to be relaxed or abandoned. Indeed, C&S could be sold politically under the slogan ‘save the world — and get paid for it.’ This gives a certain robustness in the face of shocks and political events, necessary for a scheme that will need to survive for decades. (Consider, by contrast, carbon taxes. These are also simple, and a carbon tax is equivalent to an upstream cap if the tax level is set high enough. But the robustness incentives disappear if the money disappears into general taxation, and so taxes are unpopular. So it is much less likely that the tax level would be set high enough).

Next come some technical benefits of C&S:


Because permits are subject to supply and demand, and price signals then flow through the economy, C&S uses markets to guarantee that the cap is met with optimal economic efficiency.


C&S can operate at the level of a country, a bloc like the EU, or globally. This is discussed further in the ‘Global/International’ section below.


An upstream system can easily form part of hybrid schemes (see the next section).

And last but not least, C&S has some intangible, psychological benefits:


People can relax slightly, knowing that this problem, at least, is being addressed. They no longer need to feel guilty; on the contrary, the people are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. (Even the ‘losers’ mentioned above have non-monetary compensations; for example, since everyone knows that the problem is being addressed, the rich can counter criticism from environmentalists by responding, ‘my emissions are all within the cap too, so stop criticising!’).


C&S has a lack of intrusiveness and micromanagement. People are free to get on with their lives, without any need to keep to an ‘allowance’. There is no hassle and no intrusive tracking of individual purchasing transactions. Better still, people are in control: they are controlling the system rather than the system controlling them. You have control over ‘your share of the country’s carbon footprint.’


C&S has an ‘all in this together’ feel to it, and resonates with many other movements concerned with equality (Wilson & Pickett 2009), justice and development issues; it also resonates with initiatives at a local community level, which need to have national and global frameworks in place if their work is not to be undermined.

To summarise, we have a combination of emotional appeal, psychology and hard cash.

Of course, C&S is not the answer to everything. A framework such as C&S is a complement to, not a substitute for, measures closer to home. On the ground, people will be making behavioural changes (improving home insulation, shopping more locally, etc.) for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons will be financial, driven by the economic incentives provided by the framework. But technology standards can help here, as can tax regimes (e.g. support for renewables), education, and efforts to envisage and communicate a low-carbon future as a desirable one. It will not be sufficient to put the framework in place and ‘let people get on with it’. But it is the framework that ensures that the numerical target set by the cap is met.


The basic idea of C&S is capable of embracing a number of elaborations quite easily. All these have merits, although each eats into the basic simplicity so should be undertaken with care.


C&S is based on simple equity between all adults. Now one can argue about whether or not this equity represents justice (Starkey 2008), and arguments can be made for adjustments to simple equity — allocating extra to rural households, partial shares to children, etc. Everyone can claim to be a special case, but equity is the undoubted starting point, just as it would be for food rations in a lifeboat. Recognising that special-case pleading could go on indefinitely, in practice there will be a compromise between adjustments that target particular groups and the simple guideline of equity. One could argue that the details of the distribution are less important than the fact that the cap is in place: the Cap is more important than the Share. But equity is an important factor in rendering the scheme publicly and hence politically acceptable, thus allowing the introduction of the cap in the first place. It may be better to keep it simple and tackle special needs with explicit, separate arrangements.


As mentioned above, C&S is scalable, applicable to a nation alone, or on a global scale. But instead we could introduce C&S just for personal direct emissions, or even just in a single sector (for example, an initial introduction for the transport sector only).


As an upstream system, C&S also could adopt a ‘hybrid’ approach (Sorrell 2008) to dovetail with an existing ETS as a transitional measure (Matthews 2008). It is thus flexible enough to accommodate other ideas — within an underlying simple framework.


Hybrids are one way of introducing C&S ‘gently’ to allay fears and incorporate learning from other schemes. Other pathways are possible too. For example, a government initially reluctant to impose a cap might introduce a carbon tax levied upstream; but this can easily morph into an upstream permit system with ceiling prices (see below), and then (by raising the ceiling prices) into an upstream cap.


Although leakage through spurious offset ‘projects’ should be avoided, offsets might be allowed against sequestration, either capture at the point of combustion or direct sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (by high-tech scrubbers, or low-tech methods like biochar).


C&S is presented here for carbon dioxide, but the same principle applies to other greenhouse gases (which would be hardly feasible for a downstream system). In fact any other common resource such as a fishery could be incorporated: it is easy to maintain a cap using permits, and distribute the share to the population. This has a deep resonance with emerging ‘commons thinking.’


Some of the revenue could be kept back to fund collective projects to smoothe the transition to a low-carbon economy. There could also be a fund to help specific countries (or individuals) with adaptation. Some proposals in fact, such as Kyoto-2 (Tickell 2008), commandeer all the funds for such purposes. However, hiving off a significant fraction of the revenue undermines the ‘robustness’ incentives, and there is again a strong argument for separate arrangements to tackle these issues. C&S would complement, not replace, parallel efforts to encourage R&D, set technology standards, aid with adaptation and so on.

International / Global

In an ideal world, C&S would operate as a global scheme, a single policy for the planet considered as a whole, A global scheme needs a global institution such as a Global Commons Trust, presumably run by the UN, to operate a worldwide system of permits (which in this case would apply to extraction of fossil fuels only, since there are no ‘imports’ from other planets), with the resulting revenue returned to the (world) population. Global schemes thus bypass nations, except perhaps as a vehicle for transmitting the funds to their populations.

An alternative approach is the international one, which seeks to add up and link together actions taken by sovereign nations. In this approach a global cap is apportioned using a formula agreed by all; each nation then operates its own scheme (such as national C&S). The apportionment formula is of course a thorny question: the formula might be based on Contraction & Convergence (C&C), promoted by the Global Commons Institute (Meyer 2000) and accepted at various times by various national governments, and under which national shares of a global emissions budget start at the current shares of global emissions and converge over (perhaps a short) time to equal per capita shares. If countries sign up to the general principle of a global cap, it is quite possible that the actual pathway ends up resembling the framework proposed by Frankel (2007), which is an ingenious set of elaborations on C&C performing a tricky balancing act of incentives. Or, as soon as the world recognises the extent of the emergency, we may be into Greenhouse Development Rights territory (Baer et al 2007) — an approach that also explicitly addresses inequality within nations. The negotiations might get messy, but the rallying cry must be simple.

Global C&S is equivalent to C&S in each nation with national caps calculated on an equal per capita basis, so the eventual destination of many global and international frameworks would be the same. Global C&S is just C&C with immediate convergence, and with ‘the permits going to the people.’

Now, global frameworks would require global institutions (and probably other things like monetary reform). Many authors regard this overruling of national sovereignty as hopelessly unrealistic — although others see climate change as a catalyst for wider reform, perhaps ushering in some form of global democracy (Holden 2002). Global institutions would seem to be an obvious long-term goal, but many would see the problem as simply too urgent and complex: we should not attempt to tackle too many things at once. Advocates of this view would stick with an international system. Of course, even international systems need global elements too: greenhouse gas concentrations are global entities and the cap must be set accordingly. Whatever one feels about this, it seems certain that the current emergency caused by humanity bumping up against the finite limits of the planet will force a reassessment of many of the tacit — but clearly unrealistic — assumptions underlying ‘conventional’ economics, politics and much else.

Which leads us finally to asking, ‘what is realistic?’

A choice of realisms

There is no sign of Cap & Share being introduced by any nation, never mind as a global scheme, any time soon (although Ireland has been considering C&S for the transport sector). Instead, government communication to the public concentrates on individual ‘small actions’: on doing one’s bit, with exhortations to switch off standby electrical equipment, use low energy light-bulbs, and calculate personal carbon footprints. There is a nagging tone and a strong implication that ‘people are the problem.’ This message fosters guilt, perpetuates ignorance and misconceptions (e.g. that climate change can be halted by recycling), and encourages the perception that climate change is not important (or else the government would be doing something serious about it).

It is easy to read into this a picture of governments scared of facing up to the truth and of telling that truth to the people. But there is some truth in government assertions that the public is as yet unwilling to curb its carbon emissions. Despite a blossoming Transition Towns movement in the UK and elsewhere which seeks to build local resilience ahead of climate change and peak oil, at the moment it appears that the majority of the population want to tackle climate change only if it isn’t too much ‘hassle,’ and only if it doesn’t cost too much money.

So, what can we ‘realistically’ hope for?

In the international arena, proposed international climate architectures (Aldy & Stavins 2007) lie on a rough spectrum from top-down formula-based plans aiming at universal participation by all nations, through to bottom-up arrangements of piecemeal actions taken by nations unilaterally. Let’s call proponents of these schemes ‘Builders’ and ‘Growers’ respectively (with no disrespect intended to either group). A Builder wants to plan, and suggests building a tower; while a Grower wants to let things happen, and suggests planting trees. Growers, pointing to game theory, say that building a tower is ‘unrealistic’. Builders, pointing to the urgent need to avert runaway climate change, say that waiting for a tree to grow is ‘unrealistic’. These are clearly different uses of the word ‘unrealistic’.

This Builder-Grower spectrum is correlated with another spectrum concerning transfers of wealth from rich countries to poor. Suggestions for allocation of the global ‘pie’ range from grandfathering (pegged to current emissions, that is, rich countries get more) through equal per capita allocations (everybody gets the same) to proposals ‘beyond’ equal per capita allocations that compensate for the legacy of historic emissions (rich countries get less). Planners’ frameworks typically involve transfers of funds, whereas unlinked and unilateral actions (by default based on grandfathering) typically don’t. Large transfers are dismissed by some in the developed world as utopian, unrealistic or unacceptable. But there is also hostility from developing countries to proposals that seem to limit their development, especially if these ignore ‘ecological debt’ (Simms 2005, Roberts & Parks 2007).

There is also a correlation with another spectrum concerning strength of caps. Should they be tight, quantity-based targets related to ‘safe levels’ of greenhouse gases; softer price-based targets balancing benefits and costs; or should targets be abandoned altogether in favour of encouraging unilateral ‘efforts’? A Grower might say that a quantity-based target, or cap, is unrealistic as costs must be taken into account. A Builder might say that any cost-benefit analysis that tries to put a price on a stable climate is unrealistic. Which sort of ‘unrealistic’ do we choose?

Price-based policies often involve ‘ceiling’ prices. To guard against the price of permits rising unacceptably high, governments undertake to issue more permits and sell them at the ceiling price. (The government may also agree to buy permits at a ‘floor’ price, should the demand for permits fall ‘too much’ and undermine green investment). A ceiling price offers to convert a quantity-based policy, based on ‘safe levels’ of greenhouse gases, into a price-based one, balancing benefits and costs, when the going gets tough. Ceiling prices are often described as a ‘safety valve’.

The safety valve metaphor conjures up the image of a steam engine or pressure cooker, where if the pressure builds up excessively it can be released before there is an explosion. By analogy the pent-up demand for permits might put excessive pressure on the permit price. (Even the phrase ‘ceiling price’ has a comforting ring of ‘limiting the anguish’ to it). Governments naturally seek the reassurance of a mechanism existing to release this (political) pressure, and this seems eminently sensible; after all, letting off steam is a benign image. Yet this image contains no hint of any external limits or constraints.

Consider instead the following story. Passengers are queuing at check-in at the airport; they are attending a coin-collecting convention and each wants to bring his coin collection along. Unfortunately there is a weight limit, and the passengers are unhappy about being refused their requests. The check-in supervisor nervously watches anger mounting, and worries that this might explode unless the weight limit is relaxed. Yet now we can clearly see the problem with giving in to this pressure: the plane crashes on takeoff. In hindsight it would have been better to face up to the metaphorical explosion — of anger, of tantrums at not getting one’s way — in order to avoid the literal explosion (at the end of the runway).

The analogy with the global climate is clear. Seemingly sophisticated arguments about ‘stock-pollutants’ notwithstanding, it is surely better to come to terms sooner rather than later with what a finite planet means. The view that it is naive to expect governments to agree to any scheme that does not have a ceiling price is offered as ‘realism’. But there is a choice of realisms here.

As debate continues, the problem is increasingly urgent as scientists point to feedbacks and tipping points. To avert catastrophic climate change we will need a mobilisation of resources akin to that in wartime, and if this mobilisation is to be forthcoming, we need to realise and accept that we are all in the same boat — and a sinking one at that, despite claims from some that “it’s not sinking at our end yet.” It is in the self-interest of all that the boat does not sink. Yes, it is political realism to recognise that the temptation is to ‘free-ride’ — to leave the effort of doing something about it to someone else — but pointing to this situation and shrugging is a wholly inadequate response. This type of realism is only a starting point. A tougher — and necessary — biophysical realism insists that this situation is addressed robustly.

A global cap may be agreed by policymakers, but should be based on science (for example as recommended by the IPCC); that is, it should be based on what is required to stop runaway climate change, not merely ‘what is politically feasible’ or ‘the extent of popular or political support’. In one sense it is tautological to say that the extent of popular support will set the cap, but the onus must be to change this support to align with scientific necessity. An emergency demands a scale of response commensurate with the gravity of the situation.

It is too easy to regard an acceptance of current political realities as pragmatic, and regard as utopian any insistence that they change. Human nature might be pretty fixed, but ‘political realities’ are more malleable. We need to think through which realism we are choosing. Some types of realism are not an option — at least not an option consistent with survival. As the residents of Easter Island could tell us, scientific realism will trump political realism in the end.


One of our overriding needs is for statesmanship, deploying rhetoric of the calibre of Gandhi, Lincoln, Mandela, Confucius or Churchill, to prepare the world for, and lead it into, swift and far-reaching changes. The messages are not easy, and the rhetoric will need to draw on simplicity and to extend the discussion beyond economics. Governments might engage in cool calculation, but people are inspired by rhetorical appeals to deeply held values and visceral feelings. At the moment, the populations of most countries are largely in psychological denial, ‘yearning to be free’ of the knowledge, deep down, that we are collectively on the wrong road. The abolition of slavery overrode economic arguments by appealing to basic human values. Surely averting climate chaos, and hence ensuring our survival and that of much of the natural world, is an equally inspiring goal?

Any framework such as C&S would be adopted alongside other measures, such as a push on R&D, infrastructure projects and funding for adaptation; research into geo-engineering and sequestration technologies; agreements concerning land use; and so on. We will need them all. But we will also need a dramatic change in global popular opinion — a change of world-view. Adoption of a simple, fair and realistic framework for cutting global carbon emissions — such as Cap & Share — would be inspirational, resonating with this change and with efforts to solve the other problems that face us collectively on our finite planet.


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  10. McKibbin, Warwick J. & Wilcoxon, Peter J. (2007). A credible foundation for long-term international cooperation on climate change. In: Aldy & Stavins (2007), pages 31-56.
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    In: Environmental Audit Committee (2008). Personal Carbon Trading. London: The Stationery Office, pages Ev 84-98. (www.parliament.uk)
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  16. Starkey, Richard (2008). Allocating emissions rights: Are equal shares, fair shares?
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  18. Wilkinson, Richard & Pickett, Kate (2009). The Spirit Level. London: Allen Lane.

Proximity 2.0: Cutting transport costs and emissions through local integration

Emer O’Siochru

Rather than bringing similar activities closer together to reap the benefits of scale and agglomeration, different activities should be situated beside each other to be more energy and carbon efficient.

“is ar scáth a chéile, a mhaireann na daoine”
Seanfhocal Gaeilge

“In the shadow or shelter of each other, live the people”
Old Irish saying

This old saying tells us there was a time when it was an uncontested fact in Ireland that living close to each other was essential for a happy human life. That human life thrives when human actions are so confined in space as to impact on others today seems strange given our current desire for ever more expansion and separation in our living and working arrangements. Did this old saying emerge from a need to make the best of a bad situation or is it a forgotten but essential truth that still has resonance today?

This paper will advance the case that closeness, or ‘proximity,’ was valued as life enhancing in the past — and for good reason, despite the propaganda of the rural revisionists. It describes what I call the Proximity Principle 2.0, the idea of a redefined and augmented ‘proximity’ that has a great deal to offer communities in the troubling times ahead. There’s more than a little bit of magic about the notion that something unexpected and wonderful can come simply by confining and combining existing elements differently, but that’s exactly what the Proximity Principle 2.0 offers us.

In Ireland over the past 50 years, we’ve invested heavily in putting distance into our living and working arrangements. We live apart from each other, work far from where we live, shop far from where we work, grow food far from where we eat and so on. Our support systems are all fall-flung and invisible; electricity is generated remotely, waste is processed remotely, knowledge is generated remotely to our everyday experience. Something profound has happened to the way we live.

Fig 1. The way we live now: scattered houses, Co. Galway, Ireland.

This paper does not explore what happened; others better able to do so will contribute to that topic in this book. Instead it will look to the past for clues to the immediate future.

Irish settlement patterns myths

First we need to debunk some myths. Contrary to what is generally believed, the Irish people are not culturally predisposed to isolated settlement patterns. In fact, the historical records and the maps show that Irish people consciously chose to live close together where and when they had the freedom to do so. The Vikings founded many of our coastal towns but the Irish had their own proto town, set in the fertile plains and river valleys. These were the monastic settlements of the early Christian era and were centres of trade as much as of learning and piety.

What is less well known is that as the population increased, Irish society was developing the village structure along the European model in the 16th and 17th centuries, i.e. farmer and farm labourer families living alongside artisans and small-scale merchants in compact mixed settlements. In these villages, farmers travelled from the village everyday to the tillage and orchard in-fields and further to the out-field pastures.

The Cromwellian re-conquest put an abrupt halt to this evolution; towns and villages were broken up and new settlers and the non-rebellious installed on isolated farms. Only in the areas protected by the powerful Norman Butler family around Counties Kilkenny, South Tipperary and Waterford can we see surviving evidence for this farm/village from the 1830 OSi map records.

Fig 2. The way we lived then 1: this 1816 map of Listrolin, a farm village in Co. Kilkenny, shows how farms and houses were clustered together in the past.

The displaced Irish were prevented from coming together in the better lands, but, given the relative freedom of the poorer lands on coasts and hillsides, they again formed settlements. We can see evidence of this in the many clachán settlements on Ireland’s western seaboard, today mostly abandoned. This seaboard contained the highest density of rural population in Europe in the first half of the 19th century, when the entire island hosted and fed eight million people.

This evidence is countered by those who claim that the Irish had little choice but to live in these dense settlements because all of the better land was retained by the absentee landlords and let out to conforming tenants. Another argument is that famine was brought on by the unrestrained breeding of the Irish, who foolishly ignored the fact that the poor land could not maintain their families. In fact, the land maintained them pretty well for many generations; they did this by using the nutrients from the sea to feed the soil, having well-organised pasturage systems and using the efficient lazy-bed system of cultivation — until, of course, the potato failed. Contemporary accounts tell of healthy, handsome, happy people, even if a bit unwilling to take instruction from their “betters”.

Fig 3. The way we lived then, 2. Terman, a clachan village in Co. Kerry, demonstrates how densely people once chose to live together.

The native Irish had to wait until the 18th century for the political and economic conditions that would foster the founding of the market villages and towns most of which survive today. These new villages and towns were centres of trade and exchange, not the homes of farmers. While they were often laid out by the freehold-owning landlord, they were built by Irish Catholics who had won a significant interest in their property in the form of long leases and lifelong leases.

This model was in complete contrast to the village-development model in England, where the landlord offered only limited tenancies in buildings that he built. This newly propertied merchant and professional class of Catholics led the struggle for the Land Acts, a struggle that was ultimately to redistribute the agricultural land and which, from that platform of security, later led to the national struggle for nationhood. So it can be said, not unreasonably, that the Irish villages and towns can be thanked for national independence.

The loss of Proximity 1.0

Fig 4. Castlepollard, a market village in Co. Westmeath, also shows a compact development pattern

Over the years the native Irish began to accept that living in isolated farm-steads was the natural order, its original imposition forgotten. This loss in folk memory led to a second great scattering, this time guided by well-intentioned motives.

After the terrible Famine of the 1840s, the improving Congested District Boards consolidated the fragmented holdings of clachán dwellers into separate freehold farms and individual farmhouses, breaking up the settlements in the processes. It never crossed the minds of these public servants that the villages had any value in the new Ireland they were building, nor that consolidated farms could be provided at the same time as retaining the existing settlements in use.

Not only did this policy undermine the survival of the Irish language by making it synonymous with isolated rural life, it also destroyed much of the potential for economic development by destroying the potential for specialisation.

Figs 4a, 4b and 4c. The Congested Districts of the 19th century shown in the map on the left were in most of the same places as today’s Clar areas of Disadvantage (middle map) and where the National Spatial Strategy has identified a “weak” village structure.

Figs 5a and 5b. These cartograms show the areas of the counties drawn in proportion to their populations. They reveal how some populations, particularly in the West, shrank from their level before the Famine while the population of Dublin soared. Source: Martin Charlton, (2007), NUI, Maynooth. http://ncg.nuim.ie/content/media/downloads/CartogramsQuantumLeap.pps

The evidence for this conclusion is convincing. Today, the area where the Congested Districts Board operated along the Western coast coincides almost exactly with the areas of disadvantage and population loss identified by the government’s ‘Clar’ designation (Fig. 4b) and the areas identified in the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) as having weak village structuration (Fig.4c).

The loss of village structure and thus of the benefits of proximity led to the loss of opportunity, especially for non-farming families, which in turn led to mass emigration of the young and enterprising. Martin Charlton’s cartographic project which adjusts the areas of counties according to their population makes the results of this very clear. The first map illustrates the population before the Famine; the second population loss and gain by county size in 2002. (Fig.5a and 5b)

Proximity 2.0: some definitions

Proximity has recently been rediscovered and to a certain extent reinvented as a positive principle, having earlier been eclipsed for many years by the potential of globalisation and the elimination of distance by cheap fossil fuels. A Google search brings up a surprising number of incarnations in widely differing contexts. Each context illustrates a particular attribute, and the combination of all these is what I term Proximity 2.0.

Definition 1, the most familiar interpretation or use of the term, comes from the environmental sector and refers to waste-management systems.

“The proximity principle advocates that waste should be disposed of (or otherwise managed) close to the point at which it is generated, thus aiming to achieve responsible self-sufficiency at a regional/or sub regional level”

Basel Convention 1989

In this case, the proximity principle enables and delivers “responsible self-sufficiency” which is something we will need in times of emergency.

Definition 2 comes from the technical field of industrial processes.

“Proximity is the main tool used in manufacturing to enable one-piece flow, flexibility and to quickly assist another station on the U shaped production line”

Principles of Product Development Flow 2009.

Here, proximity fosters smooth-flowing processes where glitches can be spotted and rectified quickly. This kind of flexibility is essential to resilience building, again a useful attribute in uncertain times.

Definition 3 comes from the knowledge economy discourse.

“In spite of increasing global flows of ideas, capital, goods and labor, the rise of a knowledge-based economy and changes in the organization of the innovation process have actually increased the value of geographical proximity to innovation.”

Sonn and Storper 2003

Geographical nearness fosters the random encounters that spark new ideas, something that no IT media has been able to replicate. This runs counter to the argument that all you need for innovation in the countryside is fast broadband.

Definition 4 comes from town and country spatial planning and is familiar to local government administrators, professionals and social and environmental advocates.

“Proximity should be favoured over dispersal in settlements to encourage community interaction, make public transport, local services and environmental initiatives more viable”

Campaign to Protect Rural England 2008

Rural services are in decline in Ireland and will be under greater threat with the New Emergency. The more dispersed the settlement, the greater the cost of providing its population with the services and maintenance it needs. Even though councils coped reasonably well with floods and snow of Winter 2009-10, rural roads remain potholed and pitted as budgets were exhausted by the immediate emergency measures. A second harsh Winter would render some roads impassible.

Definition 5 stems from economics and the theories of US economist and writer Henry George.

“This premise that parks have a positive impact on property values is known as the ‘proximity principle’. It suggests that the value of living near a park is captured in the price of surrounding properties.”

Frederick Law Olmstead 1856 (Olmstead was the architect who laid out Central Park, New York City).

This aspect of proximity is the most revealing and useful when we plan for the future because it tells us that investing in useful infrastructure or desirable amenities can be paid for from the increased value of the nearby/adjacent land. Proximity, here, generates value, and if recouped by the community, also generates money to pay for further services.

In sum, then, Proximity 2.0, combining all of its benefits of its various aspects, offers the following:

  1. Enables recycling of waste especially for energy
  2. Creates flexibility and resilience
  3. Fosters innovation
  4. Makes services viable
  5. Adds value to land

What Proximity 2.0 is not is about is agglomeration. Agglomeration is a term used to describe the benefits of putting similar uses together. It is familiar in retail studies i.e. retailers benefit from other retailers selling similar goods nearby as consumers are attracted to the choice and convenience offered and increased footfall leads to increased turnover for everyone. The agglomeration effect often outweighs the advantage of a local monopoly in particular classes of goods. Neither is Proximity 2.0 linked to ‘benefits of scale’, such as the efficiencies made possible by building and servicing a large number of similar houses or other buildings in a limited area.

On the contrary, Proximity 2.0 describes the advantages of placing very different, not similar, uses and functions in close relationship. The advantages that accrue to agglomeration and scale are dependant on cheap energy and globalization, and this produces an apparent simplification locally that masks a remote and therefore opaque and potentially vulnerable complexity.

‘Localisation’ is an emerging concept used by environmentalists advocating the reversal of globalization. But it is a modest and uninspiring concept on which to base an emergency response. Proximity 2.0 goes beyond negative definitions to suggest potential synergies that emerge when different activities and functions are linked at the local scale. The next section describes some examples of these benefits.

Applications of the Proximity Principle:

The Natural Step [1] is a framework for industry and business covering the generation and processing of waste. The framework builds on a basic understanding of what makes life possible, how our biosphere functions and how we are part of the earth’s natural systems. It points out that in a sustainable society, nature would not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust or created by scientists and that people would not be subject to conditions that systemically undermined their capacity to meet their needs. The Natural Step seeks to make these systems apparent to producers through a rigorous checklist process and the use of a non-political logic that eliminates pollutants through design.

Similarly, Natural Capitalism [2], developed by the US-based Rocky Mountain Institute that researches and advises on sustainable settlement, building and transportation design, describes the objective of ‘industrial ecology’. This strategy discourages forms of amoral purchasing arising from ignorance of what goes on at a distance and implies a political economy that greatly values natural capital and relies on what Amory Lovins calls ‘instructional capital’ to design and maintain each unique industrial ecology.

These principles converge and locate in the concept of ‘Industrial Symbiosis’. The tasks of identifying and eliminating the unsustainable increase in substances and deleterious conditions and of eliminating ignorance of far-flung effects is solved through the Proximity Principle 2.0 because it places different but related production systems physically adjacent to each other. This makes the problems and solutions clear without the need for checklists and renders those problems solvable without a huge investment in instructional capital.

The Municipality of Kalundborg in Denmark was one of the first to introduce the world to Industrial Symbiosis when it applied the Proximity Principle 2.0 in industrial-estate planning. In Kalundborg, all waste is someone else’s raw material. Symbiosis here means the co-existence of diverse organisms that may benefit from one another. A symbiosis network links a 1500MW coal-fired power plant with the community and other companies. Surplus heat from this power plant is used to heat 3,500 local homes in addition to a nearby fish farm, the sludge from which is then sold as a fertilizer. Steam from the power plant is sold to Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical and enzyme manufacturer and a Statoil plant. This reuse of heat reduces the thermal pollution of hot wastewater discharged to a nearby fjord. Additionally, a by-product from the power plant’s sulfur dioxide scrubber contains gypsum that is sold to a wallboard manufacturer. Almost all of the manufacturer’s gypsum needs are met in this way, reducing the amount of open-pit mining needed. Furthermore, fly ash and clinker from the power plant are utilized for road building and cement production.

Industrial symbiosis

Fig 6. This flow chart illustrates how the waste and by-products of companies on a municipal industrial estate in Kalundborg, Denmark, become the raw materials for other companies.
Source: Ecodecision, Spring 1996.

This kind of symbiotic co-operation has developed spontaneously over several decades and today comprises some 20 projects. The exchange of residual products between the companies is laid out in Fig.6. The collaborating partners also benefit financially from the co-operation because the individual agreement within the symbiosis is based on commercial principles. All projects are environmentally and financially sustainable. It’s a win-win scenario for all concerned. (Fig.6)

According to Amory B. Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, 19th- and 20th-century model power plants had a higher cost and outage rate than the grid, so both supply and demand had to be aggregated through the grid to make sure that electricity production continued without interruption. In the 21st-century model, in contrast, power plants have a lower cost and higher reliability than the grid, so affordable and reliable supply should now logically originate at or near the customer for security of electricity supply. Indeed this has been happening in Fig. 7 below we can see that non-utility i.e. non–power company electrical generation, has been increasing since the mid 1980s.

Fig 7. This graph, from Amory Lovins’ book Small is Profitable, shows how, after a period in which very few US consumers produced their own electricity, more are beginning to do so at the expense of the commercial utility companies

In his book Small is Profitable, Lovins measured the benefits of ‘distributed’ or electrical generation in proximity to consumption at two to three times that of remote generation, more if the grid is congested or reliability required. If the heat from electrical generation can be used, then the benefits double again. There are often other extra-over benefits or positive side effects or ‘externalities’ as economists call them for certain sites.

We can see these benefits in Güssing, a small town in Austria that today has a rape-oil refinery for the production of bio-diesel, a district heating unit supplied with wood, and a state-of-the-art biomass-power plant with a generation of 2 MW electricity and 4.5 MW heat. The town is now 45% self-sufficient in energy and has attracted 50 new companies, more than 1,000 new jobs, and total increased sales volume of 13m Euro per year. An eco-tourist business now sees 1,600 visitors per week visit the town, eager to learn how it reinvigorated itself.

The German town of Lünen, north of Dortmund, will use organic material from local farms to provide electricity for its 90,000 residents, producing 6.8mw to power and heat 26,000 houses. The gas is distributed through a new biogas pipeline network being built underground using a horizontal drilling robot.

Fig 8. Farm anaerobic digester Wexford.

Using the process of anaerobic digestion (AD), biogas can be produced from agricultural wastes, mainly slurries, of which there is an abundance in parts of Ireland. However, manure-only AD will not generate enough biogas and thus sufficient electricity to give a good return on its costs, as manure at best produces 20 cubic metres of biogas per tonne. Mixing bio-waste from commercial and municipal brown bins transforms the economics of farm-based ADs. An AD facility would be financed easily through gate fees (the fee chargeable for accepting wastes for processing or transformation), along with the money earned from the extra energy production that comes from the higher energy content of bio-waste. Hauling bulky manure from many widespread locations to a central point is expensive; taking the smaller quantity of pasteurised bio-waste to a rural location near or in a livestock farm has lower costs and lower CO2 emissions. It also returns food waste to where it was generated, thus closing the nutrient cycle.

If the 1.5 million tonnes of manure produced annually by 200,000 adult cattle, about 5% of the Irish herd, was augmented with 300,000 tonnes of bio-waste to give a 60/40% mix in dry matter terms, rural ADs could produce 180GWh per year. This digestion of 1.5 million tonnes of manure would also reduce greenhouse emissions by about 150,000 tonnes per year in terms of CO2 or its equivalent in other gases. This is 2.5 times the reduction required from manure management by the Irish government’s 2000 Climate Change Strategy, and there are also energy-related savings. Another significant benefit would come from the reduction in artificial fertiliser nitrogen use by around 400 tonnes per year of nitrogen, thereby preventing about 100 tonnes per year of nitrogen getting into watercourses.

Simply combining food production and consumption close together brings benefits to consumer and producer by cutting out the middleman and eliminating transport costs. Traceability is not a problem in the Herrmanndorf farm market in Hanover, Germany. Herrmanndorf, originally a sausage manufacturer, vertically integrated all aspects of food production, processing and sales in one location. Beef, milk and pork are produced on the farm and neighbouring farms using own-grown grass and cereals. Animals are farmed, slaughtered and processed on site using energy from their wastes. Beer is brewed and bread is baked from local cereals and sold in the farm market in the same way. Accommodation for workers and trainees is provided on site. The farm is a popular weekend destination for Hanover residents who enjoy a day out while doing their shopping.

Fig 9. Herrmannsdorf shop and animal housing, Hanover, Germany.

Rural settlements in Ireland are uniquely well-positioned to respond to the developing crisis. Local agriculture can produce food, biomass for energy and structural materials and fibre for construction, providing all the materials for village production and reproduction. Hemp is a neglected but particularly versatile crop that offers seeds and oil for human consumption, fibre for paper and clothing and hurd for use as an insulant and binder in construction. Combined with lime, hemp forms a composite material that has many useful qualities. Hemp-lime is insulating, fire-proof, rot-proof, vermin-proof and moisture-buffering. With passive design, it can eliminate the need for space-heating systems in new homes. Hemp-lime with timber construction saves 50 tonnes of CO2 and stores 5 tons of CO2. Hemp can be grown locally in normal crop rotations with low inputs, and is easily harvested and processed with conventional machinery. Lime and other additives are widely available in Ireland.

We now come to the most overlooked form of waste, human sewage. It’s not usually included in waste-management plans but lumped under a special category called ‘wastewater’ in government and local government regulations. Water could hardly be described as a waste so it must be something we have put into the water and the question is why? Conventional sewage systems consume scarce freshwater and dilute useful nutrients. The nutrients are carried to rivers and the sea, where they are extremely harmful causing eutrophication. In turn, more nutrients have to be produced for agriculture, causing depletion of fossil resources and high energy demand. Considerable fossil energy is used to treat sewage and grey water this way. There is, however, a better way than gravity sewerage pipework to transport human waste to treatment and processing facilities. Vacuum-based transportation, another Victorian invention, is already used successfully in virtually every train, airplane and ship.

External and/or internal vacuum wastewater systems give design flexibility; small pipes 25-100mm can go up to 6 metres vertically and 3 km on the flat. Costs are low for installation, maintenance and future modification as the many vents and traps of the gravity system are eliminated. Importantly, water is conserved; a vacuum system uses 1 litre of water per flush. Multiple collection tanks and pumps can be used to separate different types of wastewater. Vacuum transportation is the final component of a re-designed domestic system that can recover all energy and nutrients in the food cycle. There are a few examples of such a complete system in place. A small housing development in Lubeck, Germany installed a completely independent sewage and domestic food waste–treatment systems. (Fig.10)

Fig 10.  A chart illustrating the flows of energy and nutrients in a small housing development in Lubeck, Germany, which has installed completely independent waste-treatment systems for sewage and domestic food.

Cellulosic waste or woody wastes, of which there is a vast amount left over from food production, forestry and construction, are not suited to anaerobic digestion, which deals better with green or wet bio-wastes. Burning cellulosic waste recovers energy but leaves little of the original nutrients or carbon to return to the soil. Far better is pyrolysis, the process of heating without oxygen to release the volatile gases of the cellulosic material. Pyrolysis is a new name for the old-fashioned process of charcoal making. If applied in a certain way, it produces a ‘biochar’ that locks up the CO2 of the biomass and returns it to the soil where it stimulates and supports the soil organisms. (Others will describe the benefits of biochar in this volume). (Fig.11)

Pyrolysis is not yet a commercial reality in Ireland, nor has it been convincingly established elsewhere. Its promise is enormous, as it can deliver renewable electricity to the grid, considerable heat for a local factory, bio-oil for heating and transportation, and biochar for commercial agriculture and possible future carbon-credit sales. High rate of investment return can only be delivered if all of the co-products are realised i.e. when production of biochar is in the right location and is integrated into other production and consumption activities. In other words, proximity is a sine qua non for biochar to reach its potential as a climate-saving technology.


Energy was an already an important element of proximity 1.0 in the past. Before oil was exploited for energy, settlements were often established near energy sources. An example can be found in Co. Offaly on the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains, where a necklace of villages grew up around watermills on the Silver River. In the 1930s, the source of energy changed to exploitation of the bogs for turf. As the source of energy shifted, so too did the economic and political power. Ballyboy ceased to be the chief county town, and little-known Frankfort, renamed Kilcormac, rapidly developed with new worker housing because of its proximity to the turf works. As the bogs lost their importance as the importation of oil and gas rose, Kilcormac also fell into sleepy decline.

Figure 12: The watermills in Ballyboy and Cadamstown villages were once the heart of the community.

In 2005, EOS Future Design participated in a research project entitled ENLIVEN to prepare for a European funding submission exploring how renewable energy resources could once again be used as an engine for village development. We identified hydro, wind, forestry bio-energy and agricultural bio-waste resources available to the villages of Cadamstown, Ballyboy and Kilcormac. It was a first attempt to outline a new vision for rural communities using renewable energy sources located close by. In the past, rural development policies have sought to preserve threatened ways of life or to revive those that had already passed into history. The ENLIVEN study looked to the future instead of the past and actively prepared for largely predictable events. But the report did not overlook local place and local culture; the plans were rooted in specific natural and social contexts. The study easily identified a potential 43% reduction in fossil-fuel use and CO2 emissions in a rural community of 1,200.

We proposed a new plan-led process of village development that would shift from incremental one-off house development in the rural village hinterland, or the sudden huge developer-led anonymous housing estate at the edge of the village, to a more controlled process. The following is a slightly amended version of this process that takes into account political fiscal changes.

The first stage of the ENLIVEN development process covers planning and design.

  • The community of a village in decline or under potentially damaging development pressure would request a framework plan for the village.
  • A revolving fund would be available to manage the upfront costs of the plan and the infrastructure development that follows.
  • The local authority would contract a team of consultants directly or approve a set chosen by the community and would partner the team in the preparation of the plan.
  • A ‘Charrette’ in which all stakeholders participate to plan their village is facilitated by the planning and design team on location over a number of days.
  • Agreement would be sought as much as possible with landowners about what land should be developed within a five-year time horizon guided by sustainability objectives and community needs.
  • These identified lands would be prioritized for new infrastructure and investment
  • New access roads, parks, water, drainage and waste-treatment and energy-generation facilities and amenities and services required would be located, sized and costed.
  • A three-dimensional plan would show the new roads, squares, parks and also the heights, shapes and uses of the buildings that enclosed them.
  • A design guide would be developed which reflected the local building vernacular and the distinctive qualities of the local settlements and set energy and other ecological standards for the construction.

Implementation would be carried out in two stages: a) Infrastructure, services and public spaces and amenities; and b) building construction on sites.

  • The local authority would use its powers to clear title and/or acquire key land where the community and authority as a whole thought it was necessary for the benefit of the wider community.
  • The local authority or, in partnership with a private or not-for-profit infrastructure developer/s–under building licences from the land–owners, would carry out the infrastructure works and agreed amenities and service buildings. Equity partnerships are the optimal vehicle to align everybody’s interests.
  • Landowners would build on the fully developed sites or sell them to self-builders or in small groups to local builders in accordance with the design guide.
  • The community, or at least the landowners in the community, would have control of the sale price and to whom it sold the houses and sites.
  • In addition a portion of the land (equivalent to Part V of 2000 Act) should be given over to a Community Land Trust in the form of an Equity Partnership, which would provide housing for rent or purchase at a lower-than-market cost as it would not include the land element. This would ensure that locals were never priced out of their own area despite the high values created and that the key skilled people (mechanics, teachers or nurses, for instance) that the community needs for its development and maintenance would be attracted into the area.

The Proximity Principle tells us that the land values created by the development of infrastructure, services and amenities can be recouped by the upswing in land values of served and adjacent property. Section 49 of the 2000 Act provides for the recouping of investment by a local authority directly relating to a served site i.e. roads and pavements. The value added by the combined renewable-energy and waste-processing plant will attach to all land in the vicinity including developed properties. A new Site Value Tax (SVT) promised in the programme for government will provide the means to collect that value created. The SVT will also ensure that the developed sites are sold quickly and the revolving fund recouped to be made available to other communities.

Over a year, ENLIVEN showed that it could deliver 100% net renewable-energy services through electricity and hot water mini-grids in the participating villages. However, at any one time, the villages could be exporting or importing non-renewable energy from the national grid. The balancing of supply by suitable demand uses will be pursued through the planning process (the Framework Plan) and by the active participation of local development agencies to identify energy-hungry, job-creating uses.

It may be advantageous to involve an ESCo (an Energy Services Company) to undertake the ‘top up and spill’ technical and pricing interface with Eirgrid and the billing of customers. Again an Equity Partnership structure would include consumers, investors and energy producers in a sustainable relationship. Activities that are flexible enough to use off-peak electricity generated by the wind turbine, such as refrigeration or kilns, will be attracted by very cheap rates to the participating rural villages.

A local ESCo could make the extra costs of peak electricity use visible to users so that they have the option of postponing discretionary electricity use, such as the drier or dishwasher, until the energy demand and price are lower. Metering and billing systems should be intelligent so that using electricity or hot water at the high demand times will cost more than the off-peak times.

We estimated that the energy savings arising from intelligent design, construction and retrofit could eventually reach 6,282,000kWh as a direct result of the ENLIVEN project for the three villages which amount to 3,700 tonnes of CO2 saved every year. At 22.47 per tonne, this represents a saving for tax-payers of 83,228 per annum if emission rights have to be bought by the government.

Because of the insolvency of Irish banks and the pressure on public funds due to the crash in fiscal receipts, the more pessimistic observer might argue that the funding is simply not available for this kind of ambitious energy and waste infrastructure. But the Proximity Principle tells us otherwise.

Funding has been allocated under two different category streams for rural development. The first is the Rural Development Programme which was set up to tackle the quality of life in rural areas and to promote diversification within the rural economy. 50% funding for private projects up to 150,000 is available which not-for-profit community groups will be eligible for a higher rate of aid at 75%. Administration and training is funded up to a generous 100%. 30,000 per project is offered for analysis and project development.

This funding is appropriate for the Plan and Design Stages of the ENLIVEN process and would be available for reuse by further communities when recouped under SVT and Section 49 of the 2000 Planning Act.

The second major source of funding is that allocated under the Water Services investment in the NDP, a total 4.7 billion. 89 million investment was planned in the 2009 budget although final figures were reduced. To illustrate, small Wastewater Plants for six Villages in North and South Tipperary cost 10.80m (1.9 million each on average).

1.9 million will easily cover the costs of a combined agricultural and human waste-processing anaerobic digester with combined heat and power energy generation and nutrient recovery to ensure the agricultural input quality for a rural village. The private sector will be willing partners in such a facility, thereby making these funds work for other communities.

Opportunities for Proximity 2.0 in Ireland

  • The Environmental Pillar is now recognised as a ‘Social Partner’ at national level. Social Partners have to be included in ‘partnership structures’ at every level and every Leader Company (32) has to have an environmental representative, as do City and County Development Boards. So for the first time, environmental activists have a voice at local government level.
  • Many of these representatives have taken their places on these boards. I am on the County Westmeath Special Policy Committee for Environment and Water Services and I have put an item on the agenda to reconsider Westmeath’s existing specification and procurement of wastewater-treatment systems. Others will follow.
  • Site Value Taxation is now contained in the Programme for Government thanks to policy-development work by the environmental network Smart Taxes, which is led by Feasta. As the time of going to press, the network had been invited to discuss implementation issues with the Department of Finance. Those who follow Irish governance will know that this is a big advance.

Obstacles to Proximity 2.0 in Ireland:

  • The myth of an historic model for single houses and the under-valuation of the rural village still persist today as remote “one-off” houses are still being granted planning permission and built despite the downturn, even by self-proclaimed environmentalists.
  • There’s no easy way to capture the land value created by new energy and waste facilities to help fund investment until SVT is implemented and it has many enemies. Worse, even SVT political friends underestimate its vital underpinning of the economics of sustainability as it can be a difficult concept to explain.
  • Outdated drainage and wastewater building regulations and planning practices that stifle any innovation. On the positive side, these are under revision not least because of budget constraints.
  • Outdated electricity grid and cost/reward structure. The new ‘Refit Tariff’ for bio-energy is an advance, but more is needed especially commitment to the distributed and embedded energy model by government and a Cap /Tax and Share of carbon allowances.
  • The Limited Liability Partnerships legal structure needed for Equity Partnerships is not yet available under Irish Company Law.
  • Specialist, siloed scientific, technical and professional education and practice is a persistent obstacle to proximity 2.0 and one that is difficult to solve in the short term but keeping our young qualified graduates from emigrating would be a good start.


As I have shown, there are numerous tangible benefits that come from applying the Proximity Principle 2.0, not least greater energy and food security in the long term, and in the short term — rural jobs in waste treatment and energy generation. The kind of synergy that comes from placing different services and uses in proximity to each other in rural settlements is a matchless opportunity to rapidly build circuit breakers at the mid or community scale to halt complete systemic collapse. Proximity Principle 2.0 really is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, always allowing that the different parts are close enough to interact. There’s no sleight-of-hand involved; it is simply good integrated design using best-practice technical knowledge.

The payment for these manifold benefits is the abandonment of a desire for isolated living in the countryside — a settlement pattern that was never native to us anyway.


  1. The Natural Step is a non-profit organisation founded in Sweden in1989 by a scientist,
    Karl-Henrik Robèrt, which promotes a systematic, principle-based definition of sustainability. See http://www.naturalstep.org/
  2. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Little Brown and Company, 1999.