UK on track to miss carbon budgets

Just saw this very interesting analysis from Cambridge Econometrics on UK’s emissions trajectory. Key points include:

On existing policies, including those inherited, endorsed and shortly to be put into effect by the Coalition government, the UK is set to miss the carbon budget targets narrowly in the first two budget periods (2008–12 and 2013–17), but by a wider margin in the third (2018–22) and especially the fourth (2023–27)

Here’s the graph:

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Does carbon offsetting work? A guide to the debate …

The debate about the validity and effectiveness of carbon offsetting seems to be popping up a bit more of late – for example in Mark Lynas’s book, The God Species. As a result, I offered to publish on the Guardian a very slightly updated version of the offsetting chapter from my book The Rough Guide to Green Living, which I’m reproducing below.

Originally published on The Guardian

Carbon offset schemes allow individuals and companies to invest in environmental projects around the world in order to balance out their own carbon footprints. The projects are usually based in developing countries and most commonly are designed to reduce future emissions. This might involve rolling out clean energy technologies or purchasing and ripping up carbon credits from an emissions trading scheme. Other schemes work by soaking up CO2 directly from the air through the planting of trees.

Some people and organisations offset their entire carbon footprint while others aim to neutralise the impact of a specific activity, such as taking a flight. To do this, the holidaymaker or business person visits an offset website, uses the online tools to calculate the emissions of their trip, and then pays the offset company to reduce emissions elsewhere in the world by the same amount – thus making the flight “carbon neutral”.

Offset schemes vary widely in terms of the cost, though a fairly typical fee would be around £8/$12 for each tonne of CO2 offset. At this price, a typical British family would pay around £45 to neutralise a year’s worth of gas and electricity use, while a return flight from London to San Francisco would clock in at around £20 per ticket.

Increasingly, many products are also available with carbon neutrality included as part of the price. These range from books about environmental topics through to high-emission cars (new Land Rovers include offsets for the production of the vehicle and the first 45,000 miles of use).

Over the past decade, carbon offsetting has become increasingly popular, but it has also become – for a mixture reasons – increasingly controversial.

Is the whole concept of offsetting a scam?

Traditionally, much of the criticism of offsetting relates to the planting of trees. Some of these concerns are valid, but in truth most of the best-known carbon offset schemes have long-since switched from tree planting to clean-energy projects – anything from distributing efficient cooking stoves through to capturing methane gas at landfill sites. Energy-based projects such as these are designed to make quicker and more permanent savings than planting trees, and, as a bonus, to offer social benefits. Efficient cooking stoves, for instance, can help poor families save money on fuel and improve their household air quality – a very real benefit in many developing countries.

Even in the case of energy-based schemes, however, many people argue that offsetting is unhelpful – or even counterproductive – in the fight against climate change. For example, writer George Monbiot famously compared carbon offsets with the ancient Catholic church’s practice of selling indulgences: absolution from sins and reduced time in purgatory in return for financial donations to the church. Just as indulgences allowed the rich to feel better about sinful behaviour without actually changing their ways, carbon offsets allow us to “buy complacency, political apathy and self-satisfaction”, Monbiot claimed. “Our guilty consciences appeased, we continue to fill up our SUVs and fly round the world without the least concern about our impact on the planet … it’s like pushing the food around on your plate to create the impression that you have eaten it.”

A similar if more humorous point is made by the spoof website, which parodies carbon neutrality by offering a similar service for infidelity. “When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere,” the website explains. “CheatNeutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and not cheat. This neutralises the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience.”

CheatNeutral may be tongue-in-cheek but the indulgence and cheating analogies have both become de facto arguments against carbon offsetting. But do the comparisons stand up? Not according to David Roberts, staff writer at Grist. “If there really were such a thing as sin, and there was a finite amount of it in the world, and it was the aggregate amount of sin that mattered rather than any individual’s contribution, and indulgences really did reduce aggregate sin, then indulgences would have been a perfectly sensible idea,” Roberts has written, mirroring similar claims made by others sympathetic to offsetting. “The comparison is a weak and transparent smear, which makes me wonder why critics rely so heavily on it.”

And what about the claim that people use offsetting as a way to avoid changing their unenvironmentally friendly ways? This is nonsense, too, according to the offset schemes themselves, which claim that most of their customers are also taking steps to reduce their emissions directly. A report from Britain’s National Consumer Council and Sustainable Development Commission agreed with this perspective: “a positive approach to offsetting could have public resonance well beyond the CO2 offset, and would help to build awareness of the need for other measures.”

Ultimately, the question of whether the concept of offsetting is valid must come down to the individual. If you offset to assuage guilt and to make yourself feel better about high-carbon activities such as flying, that can’t be good. If you offset as part of cutting your footprint, or as an incentive to be greener (after all, the less you emit, the less it will cost you to go carbon neutral) then that can’t be bad – especially if the offset projects offer extra benefits such as poverty reduction in the developing world.

Do offset projects actually deliver the carbon benefits they promise?

Arguments about guilty consciences aside, the key issue for anyone who does want to offset is whether the scheme you’re funding actually achieves the carbon savings promised. This boils down not just to the effectiveness of the project at soaking up CO2 or avoiding future emissions. Effectiveness is important but not enough. You also need to be sure that the carbon savings are additional to any savings which might have happened anyway.

Take the example of an offset project that distributes low-energy lightbulbs in a developing country, thereby reducing energy consumption over the coming years. The carbon savings would only be classified as additional if the project managers could demonstrate that, for the period in which the carbon savings of the new lightbulbs were being counted, the recipients wouldn’t have acquired low-energy bulbs by some other means.

The problem is that it’s almost impossible to prove additionality with absolute certainly, as no one can be sure what will happen in the future, or what would have happened if the project had never existed. For instance, in the case of the lightbulb project, the local government might start distributing low-energy bulbs to help reduce pressure on the electricity grid. If that happened, the bulbs distributed by the offset company would cease to be additional, since the energy savings would have happened even if the offset project had never happened.

Partly because of the difficulty of ensuring additionality, many offset providers guarantee their emissions savings. This way, if the emissions savings don’t come through or they turn out to be “non-additional”, the provider promises to make up the loss via another project.

As the offset market grows, some offset companies have enough capital to invest in projects speculatively: they fund an offset project and then sell the carbon savings once the cuts have actually been made. This avoids the difficulty of predicting the future – and also avoids the claim that a carbon cut made some years in the future is worth less than a cut made now.

These kinds of guarantees and policies provide some reassurances, but do they mean anything in the real world? Without actually visiting the offset projects ourselves, how can individuals be sure that the projects are functioning as they should?

To try and answer these questions, the voluntary offset market has developed various standards, which are a bit like the certification systems used for fairly traded or organic food. These include the Voluntary Gold Standard (VGS) and the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS). VGS-certified offsets are audited according to the rules laid out in the Kyoto protocol and must also show social benefits for local communities. The VCS, meanwhile, aims to be just as rigorous but without being as expensive or bureaucratic to set up, thereby allowing a greater range of innovative small-scale projects.

Offsets with these standards offer extra credibility, but that still doesn’t make them watertight. Heather Rogers, author of Green Gone Wrong, visited a number of offset schemes in India and found all kinds of irregularities. One VGS-certified biomass power plant refused to allow her around, though staff there reported a number of concerns such as trees being chopped down and sold to the plant, which was designed to run on agricultural wastes.

Even if offset projects do work as advertised, some environmentalists argue that they’re still a bad idea. If we’re to tackle climate change, they argue, the projects being rolled out by offset companies should be happening anyway, funded by governments around the world, while companies and individuals reduce their carbon footprints directly. Only in this way – by doing everything possible to make reductions everywhere, rather than polluting in one place and offsetting in another – does the world have a good chance of avoiding runaway climate change, such critics claim.

On the other hand, some carbon-neutrality advocates suggest offsetting carbon-intensive activities such as flights two or three or even ten times over. This, they argue, allows individuals not just to stop their total carbon footprint from going up, but actually to make it fall.

The price of offsetting

Many people are confused by the low prices of carbon offsets. If it’s so bad for the environment to fly, can a few pounds really be enough to counteract the impact? The answer is that, at present, there are all kinds of ways to reduce emissions very inexpensively. After all, a single low-energy lightbulb, available for just £1 or so, can over the space of six years save 250kg of CO2 – equivalent to a short flight. That’s not to say that offsetting is necessarily valid, or that plugging in a low-energy lightbulb makes up for flying. The point is simply that the world is full of inexpensive ways to reduce emissions. In theory, if enough people started offsetting, or if governments started acting seriously to tackle global warming, then the price of offsets would gradually rise, as the low-hanging fruit of emissions savings – the easiest and cheapest “quick wins” – would get used up.

Another frequent point of confusion about the cost of offsetting is that different offset companies quote different prices for offsetting the same activity. There are two reasons for this. First, there are various ways of estimating the precise impact on climate change of certain types of activity – including flying, which affects global temperature in various different ways. Second, different types of offset project will inevitably have different costs – especially given that projects may be chosen not just for the CO2 impacts but for their broader social benefits.

• This article is adapted from The Rough Guide to Green Living by Duncan Clark.

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A breakthrough moment for thorium nuclear energy?

Originally published on

Parliamentary events are often dull affairs, but Thursday night’s launch of the Weinberg Foundation – a new pressure group advocating thorium nuclear energy – was quite the opposite. I can’t remember the last time I stood in a room full of people concerned about climate change that was also so full of optimism.

Part of the warm glow may have been the result of a small pang of pride at the Guardian’s involvement. Two of the key people behind it all – the host, Bryony Worthington, and the keynote speaker, nuclear engineer Kirk Sorensen – met at the Manchester Report, a Guardian event on climate solutions that I organised a couple of years ago. Worthington was on the judging panel; Sorensen was advocating a little-known nuclear reactor design based on liquid thorium fuel.

In the two years since, Worthington has been appointed to the House of Lords and Sorensen quit his day job to set up FLIBE energy, a company dedicated to commercialising liquid-fluoride thorium reactors. Their collective enthusiasm for the technology played a key role in the creation of the Weinberg Foundation, which was set up “to drive awareness, research and commercialisation of cleaner and safer nuclear technologies, fuelled by thorium.”

The idea is to create a new generation of nuclear reactors based on the element thorium, as opposed to the uranium used to produce nuclear power today. Thorium, its advocates claim, is beneficial not only because it’s far more abundant and widely distributed in the Earth’s crust than uranium; in addition, liquid-fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs, pronounced “lifters”) could theoretically be much smaller, much cheaper and much safer than conventional nuclear reactors. The waste they produce would remain dangerous for a far shorter period and, crucially, couldn’t be used to create nuclear weapons. As a bonus, these fourth-generation nuclear plants could even burn up the dangerous plutonium stored in existing nuclear waste stockpiles, using it as a fuel. The Weinberg team is already talking to Sellafield about this idea.

LFTRs aren’t the only way to use thorium to create energy. In a solid-oxide form, thorium can be used in existing, conventional light-water reactors. But that has a number of downsides, including the fact that it converts only a tiny proportion of the energy in the fuel into electricity. Particle physicists such as Nobel-prize-winner Carlo Rubbia have also advocated the use of sub-critical accelerator-driven thorium reactors, but this remains in the realm of scientific theory rather than nuclear engineering.

By contrast, liquid-fluoride thorium reactors are not just efficient but also proven – albeit some time ago. The US military produced a working prototype more than half a century ago at the Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee. It ran for a number of years before the programme was suddenly shut down and the US government’s stocks of thorium buried. The most likely reason for this decision, it seems, is that LFTRs – unlike uranium reactors – didn’t go hand-in-hand with nuclear weapons production.

The speakers at last night’s launch included Richard Weinberg, son of Alvin, the new foundation’s namesake and the man who led the Oak Ridge thorium project until its untimely demise. Obviously a busy man in his day, Alvin, who died in 2006, is also credited with designing the uranium pressurised water reactor that dominates today’s nuclear industry, being one of the first scientists to warn about the risks of CO2 emissions and writing eloquently on how science and policy connect.

There’s no way to know whether LFTR technology will live up to its promoters’ vision of safe mini reactors rolling off production lines in the 2020s at low enough prices – and in sufficient quantities – to completely change the global energy and emissions picture. But what I’ve found striking discussing and reading about the technology over the past few years is that no one seems to disagree that it’s a good idea. There’s no obvious scientific case why it couldn’t work, and even many of the traditionally anti-nuclear green groups seem to be cautiously in favour – a point emphasised last night when Craig Bennett, policy and campaigns director of Friends of the Earth, said he supported thorium research and wished the Weinberg group the best of luck. (That said, the same NGO’s head of science, policy and research wrote in a blogpost earlier this year that “thorium nuclear reactors aren’t going to be ready in time [to avoid dangerous climate change].”)

Launching an advocacy group and winning support in principle is only a first step, of course. The harder bit will be persuading governments or investors to stump up the millions or billions needed to get the technology back up and running in prototype – and then commercialised. But judging from the atmosphere last night, thorium’s promoters aren’t going to take no for an answer.

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Google’s footprint is comparable to that of the UN

Originally published on

Google’s carbon footprint is on a par with that of the United Nations, the internet giant revealed on Thursday as it published data about its energy usage for the first time.

Google says that it emits 1.5m tonnes of carbon annually but claims that its data centres consume 50% less energy than the industry average. The emissions are slightly higher than the country of Laos in south-east Asia and equivalent to the UN’s operational footprint.

The company said that many of its “cloud-based” services for businesses, such as its popular Gmail system, can be up to 80 times less polluting than traditional alternatives, which require companies to operate their own, potentially more inefficient servers.

Google has made strides in reducing the energy use of its products and increasing the proportion of electricity it purchases from renewable sources. But the company said in a conference call that its total carbon footprint has continued to climb, reflecting a growing number of users and society’s increasing reliance on online services. Google declined to reveal how much its energy use had risen since the previous year, but said that the figures would be released in the future via the Carbon Disclosure Project.

Google’s energy use became the subject of scrutiny in 2009 following the publication of a story claiming that each search carried out on the website had a carbon footprint of 7g of CO2 – around half as much as boiling the water for a cup of coffee. Google’s response was to claim that this figure included many factors it was not responsible for, such as the power consumed by the user’s computer, and that its share of the footprint was only 0.2g of CO2 per search.

Today’s announcement restates the 0.2g figure and gives equivalent numbers for other Google services, such as YouTube (1g of CO2 for each 10 minutes of viewing) and Gmail (1.2kg of CO2 per year for the typical user). The company calculates that, in total, the typical Google user creates 1.46kg of CO2 by consuming its various services – the equivalent of filling a deep bath or buying an imported bottle of wine. It also claims that producing and shipping a single DVD uses as much energy as watching YouTube non-stop for three days.

Last year, Facebook, came under pressure in relation to energy use following its decision to site its new data centre in Oregon and to power it with electricity largely generated from coal. However, Facebook argued that the cool climate in Oregon helped it minimise energy consumption by reducing the need for cooling.

As online activity has increased, the internet has become an increasingly significant consumer of energy, with a carbon footprint estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of tonnes – equivalent to a large industrialised country.

Google estimates that data centres account for around 1% of the world’s electricity use, and that Google itself consumes around 1% of that amount. Almost one-third of the company’s electricity comes from renewable sources – a figure that is continuing to rise. The company offsets the emissions generated by the remainder of its electricity supply, along with those from its offices and transport.

Gary Cook, senior IT policy analyst for Greenpeace International, which has campaigned to make the IT sector more accountable for its energy use, said: “We’ve seen lots of leadership from Google on sustainability but not in terms of transparency. It’s good to see them finally put their footprint data on the table, which hopefully should start a more robust debate on the energy use of online services. We need to see others doing the same.”

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Is it ever okay to fly to Scotland?

A friend wrote to me recently, asking the following question:

So I want to go and visit my friend in Aberdeen for a weekend.

I can take the sleeper, which I would much prefer, but which is far more expensive than flying, and (unless I go first class, at which point the cost becomes bonkers) involves sharing with a stranger and I’m way too private a person to want to do that in my own country. (Somehow it becomes OK once you cross the border.)

Or I can fly, which involves horrible airports (ugh) and commercial flying (boo) and the burning of significant quantities of fossil fuels (shame). But it’s far, far cheaper than the cheapest sleeper ticket. (That sounds slightly poetic.)

One online carbon offsetting website says that it would cost £3.10 to offset the carbon of the flights. Another says £1.30.

Now, I’d be willing to spend ten or twenty times that amount of money to make myself feel better about flying, be it carbon offsetting or contributing to the 10:10 campaign or whatever. And, as it happens, if I did, it would still be cheaper than taking the train.

Question: is it wrong to fly and then spend some money undoing the damage?

This question, or some variant of it, is something I get asked quite a lot, so having written a reply to my friend I figured I’d put it online as a blogpost, in case it’s of interest to anyone else. Here goes …

It’s a good question. And you’re one of the few people without a professional interest in the area to bother thinking about the cost per tonne of carbon abatement. Good for you!

I’m attaching the offsetting chapter from my last book which covers most of the arguments and alternatives more coherently that I will manage in an email. But you’ve already got to the heart of it, which is that, on the surface at least, the purely logical response is to fly and then spend the price difference on offsetting.

On the other hand, the reason that you’re even asking the question is, I suspect, that for some reason that answer feels wrong. That, I reckon, is not about the carbon cost in itself. After all, though taking long-haul flights add vast amounts to an individual’s carbon footprint, a one-off short trip from London to Scotland is comparable to, say, heating your flat for a few weeks, or half a new laptop, or indeed a few months’ worth of mobile phone calls – none of which (if I’m correct) you’d even think about offsetting or emailing anyone about. So why worry so much about the flight in particular? Partly, perhaps, because there’s an obvious alternative, but that doesn’t quite stack up as we almost always have choices – such as not buying a new laptop. Rather, I wonder if it’s because for various reasons choosing whether or not to fly has become some kind of de facto yardstick for expressing to ourselves and others whether we care about climate change.

My view is that this isn’t wholly irrational. We all know that our personal carbon footprints are basically irrelevant in the scheme of things. This is true not just because your 10 or 15 tonnes per year is such a small proportion of the 50 billion tonne global total. It’s also, I think, because we all instinctively know, even if we’ve never given it much thought, that the markets will ensure that the fossil fuels we individually choose not to consume will probably be burned somewhere else instead – or at least a large slice of them will. And that’s before you consider that UK internal flights are incorporated within the country’s overall carbon budgets. Assuming you believe that these targets will be met rather than exceeded across the whole system, that means it doesn’t really matter whether that carbon is released from your plane or a cement plant. Okay, so that’s an oversimplification, because the carbon budgets ignore (as far as I know) the extra impacts of burning kerosene at altitude, but the point still stands that our ability to effect emissions directly is extremely limited, once you consider the context.

Much more important and effective, probably, is to spend whatever energy we have to engage with the topic creating a narrative that makes it clear that at least some people in the UK and elsewhere care about climate change, and that policymakers should therefore do something meaningful about it. Not flying or rarely flying or never flying when there’s an alternative has become one of the standard ways that people put themselves in that camp of people who care – partly because it’s a hassle, and therefore serves the function of being a useful measure of commitment. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that deciding not to fly might be more rational than it immediately appears – albeit thanks to a social rather than a scientific kind of rationality.

I spent a long time thinking about this years ago and ended up deciding that a completely different – but probably just as reasonable – approach might be to fly as much as you want but make a pact with yourself to spend the hours of each flight writing letters to MPs about climate-related stuff – including the unsustainably fast rise in the number of flights. I don’t think I ever stuck with it (largely because I hate flying so very rarely do it) but I do believe that you can’t solve a tragedy of the commons only by personal action, and therefore that engaging as a citizen rather than a consumer is the crucial thing.

D x

PS. I did a background guide to flying and climate change here. But if you want the really juicy stuff you can try to decide how bad flying is relative to other forms of transport, which despite standard stats you will find online is actually partly about the timeframe you consider, which I could bore you about one day if you ever fancy it.

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Four reasons why I caused the riots – and what it all has to do with biodiversity

As I lay awake earlier this week listening to the sound of police helicopters above my Hackney street, I found myself thinking about ecosystems. I’ve been reading a bit about biodiversity recently, and one of the recurring themes is that ecosystems are usually more complex and intricately interrelated than they seem at first glance.

David Suziki provides a nice example in Sacred Balance. He describes how scientists spent years confused about why a forest was dying off in the north-west US. Eventually they realised that the immediate problem was a very unlikely one: falling stocks of salmon in the local river. Fewer salmon were swimming back to the forest to spawn and die. As a result, the nitrogen in thousands of decomposing fish was no longer given up each year to the forest system. And why were the salmon stocks dwindling? For a whole host of reasons, most of them to do with issues located far from the forest itself.

This elegant example of inter-reliance keeps coming back to me as I listen to commentators bicker over the causes of the riots that briefly engulfed my area along with so many others. The coalition cuts are to blame, claim left-leaning thinkers. No, it’s all about the absent fathers, say their conservative counterparts. It’s about stop-and-search harassment and police trigger-happiness, claim some in the black community. Nonsense, it’s about gangster rap music and the glorification of violence in youth culture, say others.

The truth, surely, is that it’s about a whole host of factors – probably including all of the above. Society is just as complex as any ecosystem, so it would be odd to assume that the blame must lie entirely – or even mostly – with one or two obvious factors. Apart from anything else, we’re talking about more than one separate problem: does anyone really think the teenager throwing a shopping trolley at a policeman is in the same category as the twenty-something who decides to take advantage of the situation and grab some clothes through a broken window?

No, the riots themselves are multifaceted and so, surely, are the causes. A whole range of societal issues have conspired to create the conditions for the riots – from the rise of mobile internet and our popular culture’s obsession with expensive brand-name goods to the fact that the only social group which it’s okay to publicly deride are chavs. As members of that society, we’re all in this together, and we should all take some responsibility – or at least give some thought to how our lives fit into the bigger picture. Certainly as a Hackney resident I feel that I’m indirectly bound up in it all, for lots of reasons. Here are just a few examples:

  1. My Brompton and Bugaboo. Hackney is a very divided place; poor estates stand side-by-side with leafy streets of expansive mid-Victorian terraces. The latter are mainly populated by relatively wealthy, relatively successful people like me. We’re everywhere to be seen around here, supping expensive coffees while tapping away on £1000 Apple laptops, with our overpriced bikes and buggies at our sides. Do the angry kids long for our particular shabby-chic way of life? Of course not. Do they hate us in particular? Apparently not, judging by the fact that our two communities rarely come into conflict, and that – to my knowledge – no boutique coffee shops were trashed earlier this week. But surely the aching inequality in Hackney can’t have helped the situation – especially given that it’s an inequality not just of wealth but of prospects. Those of us with the Bromptons and Bugaboos not only get the material goods that we want; we also get the easy self-confidence of people who have a stake in the world and lots to look forward to. Others around here have little more ahead of them – if they play by the rules – than an insecure minimum-wage job and a council flat. (With people like me driving up the house prices by a few hundred percent in the last decade, they certainly won’t be buying anywhere.) With no prospects, these young people have to find other ways to achieve and showcase the kind of self-confidence that some of us are born into – and I think that comes across in the riots. Yes, we can throw bricks at the police, the rioters seems to be saying. Yes, we can take the stuff from this shop. Who’s fucking well in charge now, hey?!

  2. The fact that I sometimes shop in chain stores. Although a local newsagent did get pillaged in the looting, in general the targets appear to have been chain shops. That might be irrelevant – an obvious consequence of the fact that it’s the chain shops that are full of designer sportswear, mobile phones and the other most sought-after booty. But I think there’s something else going on here as well. In a country that’s pretty-well given up on religion and politics, our only significant public spaces are our high streets – and yet they’re not really public at all. Even American writer Bill Bryson was surprised by the sheer extent of chain-shop dominance when he first travelled the UK, where every high street looks identical. I think this is relevant to the riots in two ways. First, in a sociological sense: it’s part of life being commodified and systematised, and high streets becoming places that represent a faceless system. Second, in a simple practical sense: the dominance of chain shops means that few people are invested enough in the high street to want to protect it. I’m not saying that chain shops are evil, but I can well believe that by supporting them and aiding their endless roll-out we help make the country just a tiny bit more prone to the kinds of riots we’ve seen this week. One rare example of a London high-street not yet dominated by big brands is Kingsland Road, which is full of the independent shops and restaurants of the Turkish community. When the looters arrived on Kingsland Road, they were chased away by the shopkeepers and restauranteurs, who came out in force to defend their businesses. The fact that the Turks felt able to stand up to the mob is partly because they do genuinely have a local community in the area – which isn’t true for everyone. But I don’t think that community could exist in the same way if it didn’t own its own high street – and even if it could, it’s hard to imagine that community bothering to protect a bunch of corporate retailers. (But make no mistake: the chain shops are coming. Hackney Council’s regeneration plan seems to be largely based on the idea that Dalston will be complete when the Turkish fabric shop is replaced by a Gap, who made the jeans I’m wearing as I write this.)

  3. I’m too cowardly to stand up to kids on the bus. Everyone Londoner knows the feeling. You’re sitting on the top deck of a bus but your head is hurting thanks to some kids at the back who are blasting out aggressive music through a tinny speaker on a mobile phone. Maybe a few people actually like this shrill sound, but usually it seems clear that the music isn’t being played to be listened to; it’s being played to make a point. “Just try asking me to turn it off”, the kids seem to be taunting, correctly predicting that 99% of the time no one will dare. That’s not hard to understand: after all, who wants to pick a fight with a ballsy kid who makes a point of holding his hand in a pocket in a way designed to highlight or suggest the presence of some kind of weapon. At the same time, though, how can it be that a whole busload of adults allow ourselves to be held hostage by a sixteen-year-old? The answer, I think, is that no one trusts the other passengers to back them up – which is sad, and not just because it subjects us to the humiliation of sitting in silence while a teenager taunts us. Of course, it’s extremely unlikely that the riots would have been avoided if everyone stood up to antisocial kids on public transport, but I do feel the two situations are related. “You can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t pick a fight with me personally”, is the message we collectively seem to give out every time we all sit there quietly, wishing they’d shut up.

  4. We journalists aren’t good enough. While lots of people have made the possible link between the riots and current social service cuts (which I don’t find wholly convincing, given that most of them haven’t gone through yet), the broader political context has been largely absent from the discussion. Perhaps that’s because most of us assume that the rioters and looters aren’t interested in anything as arcane as politics. Certainly it seems unlikely that the young people smashing windows are glued – like most journalists – to Twitter, soaking up an endless drip-feed of news. But you don’t need to be a news junkie to have noticed the persistent message coming from the serial scandals of the last few years. The London police? Corrupt to the core, with all the top-brass standing down. Politicians? All thieving from the the tax-payer to buy designer kitchens and still not getting punished. Banks? Screwing up the economy but still serving up fat bonuses to Ferrari-driving traders. The mass media? A bunch of criminals too – and for good measure they’re in bed with the prime-minister and the police. The result is a powerful sense that the system is not just unfair but fundamentally corrupt and rotten – and collapsing. If politicians, bankers, police and media are engaged in “pure criminality” – as Cameron and others have described the riots – then who’s to say that everyone else shouldn’t grab what they can as well? Of course, I don’t blame myself and my colleagues for the financial crash or MPs’ expenses, but I do think that, as a whole, journalists, campaigners and others in privileged and important jobs could work harder to keep a check on power and stop scandalous or irresponsible behaviour from taking hold in the first place. (Nick Davies excepted.)

I could easily list more reasons, but I hope that’s enough to make my point. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that no blame lies with the rioters themselves. Of course it does. I’m just pointing out that the UK urban ecosystem is complex and interconnected. We’re all part of it, and we won’t solve our problems until we take that to heart.

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