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Policy-makers, business and civil society face the challenge of a 'post-carbon society'

The future of cities and urban lifestyles was one focus of a conference entitled 'Towards a post-carbon society: European research on economic incentives and social behaviour' held in Brussels, Belgium, on 24 October. The conference brought together stakeholders from the world...

The future of cities and urban lifestyles was one focus of a conference entitled 'Towards a post-carbon society: European research on economic incentives and social behaviour' held in Brussels, Belgium, on 24 October. The conference brought together stakeholders from the worlds of policy, academia, business and civil society in order to highlight how political, social and economic dynamics can make a difference in adapting to climate change and increasingly expensive energy resources, and how these dynamics need to be better understood. The fourth report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published earlier in 2007, established that the effects of climate change could already be observed and that they were 'very likely' to be due to greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. The European Union set an objective of limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels when designing its polices in areas such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and research funding. One of the greatest challenges to addressing these issues globally is the rapid industrial development of emerging economies such as China and India. Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA), outlined some findings from the IEA's latest World Energy Outlook report on the pace of change in these two countries, as well as its impacts, noting that 'every second building being built in the world is being built in China'. He examined three related challenges that the world would face: energy security, climate change, and energy and poverty. Referring to security of energy supply, Dr Birol said that the EU, US, China, India and Japan currently represent 75% of world GDP, that these countries together import 75% of their oil needs and that in the near future 75% of this oil will come from three Middle Eastern countries and Russia. Meanwhile, among the world's poor, 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity. The continuing traditional use of biomass for cooking, mainly wood fires, also leads to deforestation, hard labour that relies mainly on women, and respiratory diseases that kill 1.6 million women and children per year - a figure higher than that for malaria. Hans Joachim Schnellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research, defined the challenge as 'managing the unavoidable', a global temperature rise of between 1.5 and 2.5°C, while 'avoiding the unmanageable', a rise of as much as 6°C, which would be 'the end of the world as we know it'. Each increase in temperature would be accompanied by greater likelihood of various negative effects, starting with vulnerable eco-systems and extreme weather events, progressing through consequences for the world's poorest and global food production, and culminating in 'tipping points' such as the collapse of the Amazon rainforest or the breakdown of monsoon patterns. Jacqueline McGlade, director of the European Environment Agency, illustrated Europe's precarious energy situation with the EU flag - the blue background representing the Union's oil consumption with the area of the yellow stars being proportional to its oil production. Furthermore, many socio-economic trends are moving in the wrong direction, with both road freight and air travel increasing. She identified the key issue for energy efficiency and cutting emissions as being urban sprawl. Compact cities should be preferred over the current practice of planning polycentric developments. Social change was needed in order to meet people's demands through access to services rather than physical assets, she said. Speaking later to CORDIS News, Swedish MP Mona Sahlin also said that a key topic for further research was 'how to rebuild existing cities', as well as designing new developments, in order to be consistent with a low-carbon future. Professor McGlade also pointed out that Europe needed to face the reality of people on the move, with southern Spain already experiencing water shortages and overpopulation pressure and much of today's workforce set to retire over the next decade. The revolution in the way we design towns may well have already started, said Jacques Theys of the Centre de Prospective et de Veille Technologique, since the necessary technologies are already available. He chose Bangalore as an example of the way urban sprawl could be managed by limiting developments to corridors served by train networks and discouraging car use. There is no 'win-win' situation he said, however, since increased urban density tended to lengthen journey times to travel the same distance. Several speakers addressed the long-term behavioural changes needed both to mitigate climate change and to adapt to its effects. Bertrand Chateau, director of Enerdata, pointed out that behavioural change generally occurred only between generations, being stable within age groups. The link would have to be made between energy use and lifestyle, with Europe's ageing population moving into retirement and a trend towards smaller households, including more singles living alone and childless couples. The focus of the conference was on the 'demand side' of the energy and climate change debate. Professor José Ignacio Perez Arriaga of the Pontificia Comillas University in Spain identified the key challenge as being to 'apply regulations so that energy intermediaries make money by persuading consumers to consume less'. He said that industrial development was not entirely dependent on energy use, since the EU enjoyed comparable levels of development to the US with significantly lower levels of energy consumption. He also highlighted a need to present clearly the various options for mitigation measures to people. One of the more controversial aspects of climate change mitigation is whether to increase the use of nuclear power for electricity generation. Gordon Adam, former MEP and chair of the Parliament committee responsible for energy, emphasised that the need is so urgent that 'we must use every weapon in our armoury' in order to reduce the use of carbon intensive energy sources. As he put it, the policy prescription should be 'low carbon plus renewables plus nuclear plus energy efficiency plus carbon capture plus demand management'. While agreeing that all options must be pursued, however, Ms Sahlin argued that nuclear power generation requires so much investment that going down the nuclear route too early may close the door on other more attractive options by tying up funds. In conclusion, Jean-Michel Baer, DG Research Director for Science, Economy and Society, said that the conference would feed into research topics funded under 'Socio-economic factors and actors that shape the post-carbon society' as part of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). It is the role of research to lay the groundwork for the next generation of EU policies that need to take climate change into account when addressing such issues as energy use and social cohesion.

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