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Bridging the gap between the carbon market and you

Updated Monday, 30th November 2009

Speaking from the Art & Climate Change event hosted by TippingPoint, Bryony Worthington talks about how her organisation, Sandbag, is working to reduce carbon emissions.

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Copyright The Open University


How does your work relate to climate change?

I’ve been involved in working in the environmental movement I suppose for about ten or fifteen years. My beginning was I started working as a fundraiser for an endangered species charity and got involved in wildlife conservation at an international and a local UK level, but quickly found out about climate change and realised that all the things that I cared about and was working to protect were going to be affected by this massive set of changes that were coming. So I found out more and more about that and I started to work specifically on climate change, around about 2000 when I joined Friends of the Earth as a climate change campaigner.

What are the objectives of Sandbag?

I set up Sandbag in 2008 because I’d been working in the field for eight years by then and I’d become quite frustrated that there was a kind of disjoint between the discourse within politicians and the world of policy and what was being discussed in the public realm. When you walk the corridors of Whitehall or even big business they all talk about the carbon market and emissions trading as being both the big way of solving this. And yet the man on the street has probably never heard of it and certainly doesn’t know what it means or how it affects them. So Sandbag is all about trying to create that bridge between the carbon market and the sort of world of high finance and government and individuals, basically.

What are you planning over the next year?

The coming years are going to be important for emissions trading. It’s…obviously Copenhagen is going to be a big focus of attention at the end of this year. But from that will come two more years of negotiations probably to try and thrash out the detail of what the next global agreement is going to look like that replaces Kyoto. So there will be a lot of work to be done in terms of trying to monitor the proposals and influence proposals to make sure they create something that makes sense. So we’ll be doing a lot around that. There’s also, and our focus is mostly on the European Emissions Trading Scheme, and in Europe we have a policy that is going to change once we have a global agreement in place. So we’ll also be doing a lot of work at European level to make sure that whatever is agreed internationally then gets translated down into tough policy in Europe. So that’s the next couple of years.

Trading works in sort of five year phases. So we’re currently kind of approaching the middle of the first phase of trading, and we’ll be doing data scrutiny all the way through that, and that will end in around 2012 when there will be a big sort of reckoning to try and see has the EU Trading Scheme actually done anything or what’s been occurring on the ground. So there will be a lot of focus for us at the end of that five year period, and then the next phase will start. And again a new set of allocations, a new set of caps will be brought in, and we’ll be scrutinising those to see if they’re working. And I think this is just going to go on and on, in terms of this policy is just going to… I don’t see it going away, there’s regular periods in which it needs to be reviewed, and we’ll be scrutinising it and putting forward suggestions for how it can be improved every step of the way.

How does Sandbag contribute to the argument?

Yeah, so I think part of what we see as our role is partly a watchdog but also an educating organisation to try and inform people about the importance of emissions trading. A lot of people don’t really realise that caps have been introduced on emissions, which essentially set the level of pollution going forward. So if you are being green and environmentally conscious and maybe switching off your lights or buying greener electricity, you might believe you’re doing something additionally good to the world. But actually because the limit on pollution from those sources has been capped, you’re just merely contributing to the movement of permits between participants in the scheme.

So it’s quite a hard thing to grasp but when a cap is introduced it essentially fixes the level of pollution and there’s not very much an individual can then do to change that. Except there was a rather wonderful loophole which is that you can personally buy permits and destroy them, taking them out of the hands of the system; it’s a bit like musical chairs. A certain number are created and we can go and take away some of those chairs making it harder for industry to pollute. So that’s also what we do, explain to people this exists, how it affects your personal freedoms and choices, and then give you an empowering action you can take to make a difference.

What is your vision of the next 10 years?

I have a fear that people will realise the importance of emissions trading and not bother to get under the detail of it and just dismiss it because it feels disempowering and something that’s remote and they’re sceptical about financial markets, and it all sounds very bad, and fail to grasp the fact that this is actually a very important brake on emissions that we can control, and my positive vision is that people accept emissions trading is a force for good and can be used to speed the process of change, and I’d like to see more and more people using imaginative ways of engaging with the carbon market.

In the States when this was invented it was used for air pollution, to combat air pollution, and all sorts of creative things happened. Factories with permits used to donate those permits to local communities, who would then either destroy them or sell them and use the proceeds to invest in local projects. None of that’s really emerged yet in the carbon market, and I find that very curious, so I’d like to see a whole suite of ways in which people are engaging with emissions trading in the carbon market to speed the pace of change. I mean we’ve made money equate to pollution, so if we can start to control money we can then stop pollution.

Where does the passion come from?

I suppose I care passionately about leaving the planet in a state in which other people can enjoy it, and I worry that the things that I’ve enjoyed, I grew up in a rural part of Wales and I had a huge amount of enjoyment from the natural world that surrounded me, and I felt that it was quite likely that my generation or the generation that came after might be the last to enjoy this, and maybe that’s a bit too doom and gloom. But I felt that there’s something about our, you know, what we gain from sort of having a natural world that’s well functioning, it sustains us, it sustains us all psychologically and physically, and I just felt that it was important to try and do what you could to preserve that for future generations. It just seemed a pretty logical thing really. And I guess I’m also fired up by trying to get things to work better.

I like, with emissions trading, and the analogy I use is it’s like a stream or a river, and it’s flowing, but it’s kind of jammed and it’s diverted and it’s not flowing correctly. The money that’s going through it is ending up in the wrong places. But I really like the idea of clearing that stream and making it work really well. So it’s kind of that was a childhood thing that I liked to do, just make things work more efficiently, and that’s what we’re doing with emissions trading.

Optimism or pessimism?

I think I’m an optimist actually. I’m quite, every day I get quite inspired by how creative people are or how the human mind is incredibly imaginative, we’re always making connections where you think that there might not be a connection, and it’s, and we’ve got, you know, I think there is more neurons in one single brain than there’s stars in the universe, and I just think that’s a massively important sort of resource, and we’re getting more and more connected. So, you know, the global community is growing in strength and diversity and I just, I’m generally, I think we’re too intelligent to let ourselves really screw up, so I think we’ll solve this. It might take some time and we’ll make mistakes but I’m pretty hopeful.

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