A modest proposal to save the planet

Our leaders are finally waking up to the fact that climate change, far from being a 'green' fantasy, is a real, imminent and potentially catastrophic threat to humanity. Yet preventative action seems to be as remote as ever. Isn't there something we could be doing? In an extract from his acclaimed new book, Mayer Hillman advocates radical changes to the way we conduct our daily lives that would ensure a future for our children

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Climate change is the most serious environmental threat the human race has ever faced; perhaps the most serious threat of any kind. The dangers can hardly be exaggerated. Within 100 years, temperatures could rise by 6C worldwide. Much of the earth's surface could become uninhabitable, and most species could be wiped out. In the UK, over the next 50 years, we will experience hotter, drier summers, warmer, wetter winters and rising sea-levels. In most of our lifetimes, millions of British people will be at high risk from flooding; there will be thousands of deaths from excessive summer temperatures; diseases from warmer regions will become established; and patterns of agriculture and business will have to change for ever.

Climate change is the most serious environmental threat the human race has ever faced; perhaps the most serious threat of any kind. The dangers can hardly be exaggerated. Within 100 years, temperatures could rise by 6C worldwide. Much of the earth's surface could become uninhabitable, and most species could be wiped out. In the UK, over the next 50 years, we will experience hotter, drier summers, warmer, wetter winters and rising sea-levels. In most of our lifetimes, millions of British people will be at high risk from flooding; there will be thousands of deaths from excessive summer temperatures; diseases from warmer regions will become established; and patterns of agriculture and business will have to change for ever.

This is not the view of alarmists, but the considered opinion of the overwhelming majority of international climate scientists. It is acknowledged by most governments and their advisers. Last month, government-funded scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle made the key admission that the troposphere is indeed warming at 0.2C per decade - precisely as predicted by the main global-warming models. The UK Government's chief scientist warned the same month that if global warming continues unchecked, by the end of this century Antarctica is likely to be the only habitable continent.

The World Health Organisation blames climate change for at least 160,000 Third World deaths last year. Tony Blair admitted that climate change was "probably the most important issue that we face as a global community". The message is clear. Doubting the imminence of significant global warming may once have been an intellectually defensible position. It isn't now.

Decisions must be taken as a matter of urgency. We cannot rely on optimism. We need to think beyond energy efficiency and renewable energy, towards ideas of social and institutional reform and personal changes that require much lower energy use. Yet government action is only scratching the surface, and current policies on transport and growth can only make things worse. We are on the road to ecological Armageddon, with little apparent thought for the effects on the current population, let alone those who follow.

It doesn't have to be like this. Nor does anyone want it to be. The UK government said in 1990 that it was "mankind's duty to act prudently and conscientiously so that the planet is handed over to future generations in good order". This is crucial. As well as posing the most demanding challenges to the character and quality of our way of life, the issue has to be seen and acted on from a moral perspective.

Taking this as a starting point - that it is a matter both of necessity and of responsibility to try to save the planet - only one solution has a realistic prospect of success. This article is an attempt - made more fully in the book I have written with Tina Fawcett, How We Can Save the Planet - to bring that solution to the centre of public debate.

The direction is simple and generally agreed: cuts must be made to greenhouse-gas emissions. The difficult part, where moral as well as scientific questions arise, is deciding by how much, by when and by whom. Should the most "energy profligate" nations and individuals be obliged to bear the greater burden of emissions reductions?

The solution set out here - first at a global level and then at a local, individual level - is radical. But it can achieve a sufficient decrease in emissions, by a set date, transparently and fairly, so that it can command wide public and political support. For the UK to adopt this strategy will mean that it can meet its own commitments to greenhouse-gas reductions and show global leadership.

The most plausible way to reach a just - and thus realistic - global agreement on emissions reduction is the system known as Contraction and Convergence (C&C). This brilliant and simple method was first proposed by the Global Commons Institute (GCI) in 1990, and its unique qualities have been widely recognised. A large number of national and international bodies have endorsed it, including - in the UK - the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Cabinet Office'' Performance and Innovation Unit, and the Greater London Authority.

C&C is founded on two principles: first, that global emissions of carbon dioxide must be progressively reduced; and second, that the reductions must be based on justice and fairness, which means that the average emissions of people in different parts of the world must ultimately converge to the same level. This latter requirement has not been included for moral reasons alone; climate change cannot be restricted to a manageable level without all countries sharing this common objective.

C&C simplifies climate negotiations to just two questions. First, what is the maximum level of carbon dioxide that can be permitted in the atmosphere without serious climate destabilisation? Second, by what date should global per capita shares converge to that level?

The targets in the Kyoto protocol are not based on a reliable understanding of the safe limits of greenhouse gases: rather, the reductions were determined by what was considered to be politically possible in developed countries. By contrast, C&C would use the best scientific knowledge to set maximum safe levels of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere (now estimated at 450 parts per million), and hence the maximum cumulative emissions.

While the date of convergence would be subject to agreement, the principle of equal rights for all would remove the potentially endless negotiations that would otherwise occur, with each country making a case that its contribution to global reductions should be modified in light of its special circumstances.

Another important element of the C&C proposal is the ability of countries to trade carbon-emissions rights. Countries unable to manage within their agreed shares would, subject to verification and rules, be able to buy allocations of other countries or regions. Sales of these unused allocations, almost invariably by vendor countries in the Third World, would fund their development in sustainable, zero-emission ways. Developed countries, with high carbon-dioxide emissions, gain a mechanism to mitigate the expensive early retirement of their carbon capital stock, and benefit from the export markets for renewable technologies this restructuring would create.

The next step is for our government to adopt the principle of C&C, and to lead diplomatic efforts to establish it as the basis of future international agreement. The UK cannot act unilaterally. But this does not mean it cannot be in the vanguard. What would happen if it did? Or, put another way: how can a reducing emissions quota be shared out?

Based on the equity principle in C&C, the obvious answer is for a system of personal "carbon" rationing for the 50 per cent of energy that is used directly by individuals. Indeed, as part of a global agreement, per capita rationing would be the obvious mechanism for all countries.

The main features of this would be:

* Equal rations for all adults (and an appropriate fraction for children);

* Year-on-year reduction of the annual ration, signalled well in advance;

* Personal travel (including travel by air and public transport) and household energy use to be included;

* Tradeable rations between individuals; and

* A mandatory, not voluntary, arrangement, instituted by government.

Clearly, giving people equal carbon rations - an equal "right to pollute", or an equal right to use the atmosphere - is equitable in theory and reflects the international equity principle in the C&C proposal. There may have to be some exceptions to this rule. However, in general, it will be better for society to invest in provision for the energy efficiency of "exceptional" cases so that they can live more easily within their ration, rather than to keep tinkering with the ration. The more exceptions granted, the lower will have to be the ration for the rest of the population.

The rations will have to decrease over time, in response to the need both to reduce emissions and to allow for a rise in population. Giving due warning of future ration reductions would allow people to adapt homes, transport and lifestyles at the least cost and in the least disruptive way to them individually. Experience has shown that industry has been able to produce more effici- ent equipment (fridges, washing machines) at no extra cost if given time to adapt the design and manufacturing processes. The same is likely to be true of people adapting to low-energy, low-carbon lifestyles.

With personal travel and household energy use included, half of the energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our economy is covered. The other half comes from the business, industry, commerce and public sectors, which produce the goods and services we all use.

In theory, it might be possible to manage this half by calculating the "embodied" emissions in each product or activity (such as all the emissions from the processes entailed in the production, transport and disposal of, say, stereo equipment, or cars) and give consumers a further allowance for buying products. But this would be very complex and data-intensive, as well as being very difficult to apply to some goods and services - how could you "carbon rate" a haircut, or a hospital stay? It would be much simpler to make the non-domestic sector directly responsible for reducing its share of CO2 emissions (for which a separate rationing scheme, on similar lines but not described in detail here, would be needed).

Not everyone will need to use their full carbon ration. Those who lead lives with lower energy requirements, and who invest in efficiency products and energy renewables, will have a surplus, which they can sell. Those who travel a lot, or live in very large or inefficient homes, will need to buy this surplus to permit them to continue with something like their usual lifestyle. Thus people will want to trade carbon rations.

Economic theory says that by allowing trading, any costs of adapting to a low-carbon economy will be minimised. Price would be determined by availability of the surplus set against the demand for it. For this purpose, a "white" market would be created, possibly via a government clearing "bank", or a version of the online auction system eBay (cBay?). There would be little chance for a "black" market to develop.

History suggests that appeals to reason and conscience have not been sufficiently effective in achieving major changes in our irresponsible patterns of behaviour and consumption. To be effective, therefore, carbon rationing would have to be mandatory. A voluntary approach would not succeed: the "free-rider" would have far too much to gain.

But managing carbon rationing should be simple. Each person would receive an electronic card containing that year's carbon credits. The card would have to be presented on purchase of energy or travel services, and the correct amount of credits would be deducted. The technologies and systems already in place for direct-debit systems and credit cards could be used.

A number of social, technical and policy innovations would be needed to make it possible for people to live within their carbon allowances. On the technical side, these could include "smart meters" that inform people how much of their annual ration is left; which appliances are using most energy; and how much carbon could be saved by, for example, reducing the time spent in the shower, or by heating bedrooms only in the late evening. Alternatively, energy companies could install sophisticated carbon-management systems in houses, which take these decisions automatically and guarantee carbon savings. In terms of policy, equipment that uses less energy could be favoured through devices such as VAT, labelling, minimum standards and subsidy.

At present, the purchase of the most efficient types of equipment is encouraged, whether it be cars, refrigerators or washing machines. In future, the emphasis will be on items using the lowest amount of energy or with the lowest emissions, with much better information available at the point of purchase of everything that uses energy, from new and existing homes to televisions and mobile phones. It will thus be in the economic interest of manufacturers to supply goods that make the lowest use of carbon. Socially, one would envisage that attitudes would change so that thrift rather than profligacy in energy use and carbon emissions was increasingly preferred.

There has been no recent experience of long-term rationing (other than by price) in the UK. The nearest comparison is the food rationing introduced in the Second World War, when the availability of food, clothing and other goods had to be reduced drastically. Despite difficulties, contemporary opinion polls showed that rationing and food control were, on the whole, popular. Equity - the principle of a flat-rate ration for all - was a key feature of its introduction and maintenance and was widely accepted as the only fair approach, to which no one could reasonably object.

In the case of climate change, the principles of carbon rationing are far more straightforward than the quite complicated wartime system. But the benefits would be less immediately obvious. It is therefore particularly important that a cross-party consensus be achieved on the benefits of C&C and the adoption of carbon rationing. The future of the planet is too important an issue to be treated as a political football. It would be devastating if there were no common purpose, and instead political groupings vied with each other to obtain electoral support by making less demanding commitments on climate change in manifestos.

However, the likelihood of achieving such co-operation is by no means remote - it is just that a consensus has not yet been sought. None of the main UK parties has expressed reservations about either the significance of climate change or the need for serious, concerted action to limit its impacts. The challenge now is to convince politicians - and the electorate they represent - that the time for concerted action has arrived.

Carbon rationing is not a perfect solution. It will have its losers as well as its winners. Energy-intensive industries, such as motor manufacturing and international tourism (dependent as it increasingly is on flying, which is the most damaging of all human activities from a climate-change perspective), will no doubt object strongly to the concept of C&C. Its adoption will lead to a steady reduction in demand for their products and services, with consequent job losses. The future of international events attracting participants from across the world - whether for sporting, cultural, academic or business purposes - is, clearly, threatened. But such consequences cannot be considered a sufficient justification to reject what is so obviously the only assured solution to a planet-threatening problem.

The rationing system will bring rising environmental benefits in its wake, particularly in terms of the imperative of limiting damage from climate change, while spheres of the economy that are not energy-intensive - such as education, non-motorised travel, local shopping and leisure activities and domestic tourism - are likely to prosper. The important thing to remember is that this proposal is for a phased reduction, over a sufficiently long period to ease the transition towards ecologically sustainable patterns of activity.

And if a world with personal carbon rationing seems unacceptable, just imagine how much less acceptable would be a world in which effective action had not been taken to tackle climate change. The point of departure must be that, if we do not make substantial alterations to our lifestyles, the problem of climate change will intensify.

Education will be vital to break the cycle of denial. The media, too, will have a role to play - although given the proportion of their income derived from advertising "high carbon" products and activities, they are unlikely to lead the way. Meanwhile, anyone who cares about our future wellbeing and that of the planet should not turn a blind eye to the likelihood that the consequences of inaction will be awesome.

For most readers, the notion of calculating one's own carbon-dioxide emissions will be an unfamiliar one. The tables are intended to aid the development of what might be called "carbon literacy" - a vital first step towards adopting energy-thrifty lifestyles. The concept is not very different from the familiar idea of a household budget in which we manage our expenditure so that we do not run into debt. We must now learn to apply the same kind of simple management skills to energy-dependent aspects of our lives - at home, at work, in our travel and in our leisure activities.

There are three stages to the process: first, to calculate the carbon emissions from the energy we currently use; second, to calculate how much we can actually be allowed; and third, to work out how best to make the necessary transition from our current emissions to sustainable emissions.

CURRENT HABITS

DIRECT HOUSEHOLD ENERGY USE

Most of the energy used in households is gas and electricity. In each case, your usage will be indicated on your bill, in kWh (kilowatt hours). To calculate your carbon dioxide emissions, multiply your annual consumption of electricity in kWh by 0.45; and multiply your annual consumption of gas in kWh by 0.19. This will establish your emissions from these sources in kilograms of CO2. (For heating oil, the multiplier is 2.975.) Finally, you should divide each total by the number of people in your household to give you your individual emissions.

TRAVEL USE

First, estimate the annual distance you travel, in kilometres, for each method of transport: car, rail, bus, bicycle, air, etc. The table shows all the options. For car travel, discount journeys in which you were not the driver (to convert miles into kilometres, multiply the miles by 1.6). Next, multiply each annual total by the "kilograms co-efficient" shown in the table. You can make this calculation both for yourself as an individual and, if you like, for your household.

When you have added up all your major sources of personal CO2 emissions shown in the table, you will know your approximate annual emissions from direct energy use. Compare this with the current British individual average of 5.4 tonnes CO2 to see how you are doing. However, remember that about half the energy in the UK economy is used by the industrial, commercial, agricultural and public sectors to provide our goods and services. So, your total should actually be doubled to cover your share of these non-domestic sectors of fuel consumption. For the projections in the rest of this article, however, we will focus simply on your domestic consumption.

SUSTAINABLE USE

* The UK government's 60 per cent reduction target for 2050 would stabilise carbon concentrations at 550 parts per million (ppm). A more realistic view, in the light of current scientific knowledge, is that the maximum concentration in the atmosphere that should be considered safe is 450ppm. The table shows the degree of reduction required for both targets. Either will require substantial changes in our lifestyles.

Compared with expected average emissions figures for 2005, the 550ppm scenario requires a personal reduction of 63 per cent by 2050, and the 450ppm scenario requires an 80 per cent reduction by 2050. In both these scenarios, the ration shown would be equal for everyone in the world by 2050. For the 450ppm scenario, which requires a faster rate of change, the ration would be equal by 2030.

The figures in our tables, including the total you have calculated of your own emissions - should shock you. Under the 450ppm scenario, a single return flight from London to Athens would exceed your entire personal carbon ration for the year in 2030. Even on the less rigorous 550ppm scenario, your annual ration in 2030 would not be enough to cover a return flight from London to New York.

Yet there is no need to despair. Energy-use patterns have changed considerably in recent decades. Energy used for personal travel has almost doubled since 1970. Under the 450ppm scenario, CO2 emissions from personal travel would have to halve over the next 20 years. If a significant reduction in motorised travel is made in parallel with energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies, this will not represent a much greater rate of change in mobility than the UK has already experienced in recent memory - it will just be moving in a different direction. The change isn't going to be easy, but it is not unrealistic.

CHANGING OUR HABITS

Climate change cannot be limited solely by the actions of individuals. However, each individual needs to make a contribution by reducing his or her "carbon impact". This advice suggests ways you can do so.

HOME USE

As with any destructive habit, part of the answer is simply to face the facts. So, having looked at your annual energy consumption in order to audit your current emissions, it is worth considering in more detail how that energy is used, so that you can identify the major areas of opportunity in which to make savings.

The split of energy use in the home between heating and hot water depends very much on your house and style of life. For gas central-heating, the average split has been estimated as: 70 per cent space heating; 28 per cent water heating; and 2 per cent for cooking with gas. This split between heating and hot water also applies to other fuels. A more efficient or newer house will use less heating energy; large, inefficient or old homes will use more heating energy; households with more people will use more hot water. Think about your own household and how you might differ from the average.

How electricity is used in your home will again depend on what lights and appliances you have and how you use them. The average UK home uses 24 per cent of its electricity on fridges and freezers, and 24 per cent on lighting. Lighting can easily and cheaply be made more efficient, but the same is not true of fridges and freezers.

But heating is where we are most wasteful. Many people can make very significant savings simply by learning to use their heating and hot-water systems more efficiently. Are you making the best possible use of times and thermostats? Are there minor adjustments you could make to be less profligate with heat? Simply switching off your heating half an hour earlier could save more than 5 per cent of your energy bill.

Areas to consider include:

* Bathing and showering options: could you use less, or less hot, water?)

* Lighting: installing energy-saving light bulbs in the four lights you use most could save 200kWh per year, or more than a quarter of the electricity typically used for household lighting.

* Saving on standby: turning off all the TVs, rechargers and other gadgets that you leave on standby can save up to 10 per cent of your electricity. (In some cases you may need to unplug them.)

* Washing machines: switching from 60C to 40C could save 40 per cent of energy per cycle.

* Dishwashers: again, a 55C cycle uses around a third less energy than a 65C cycle.

* Kettles: boil only as much water as you need.

* Cooking: using a microwave rather than a normal oven will save energy.

* Microwaves: switch off the electronic clock display, which could well be using as much electricity per year as you use for cooking.

* Insulation of lofts and cavity walls: this requires some investment, but it is one of the most cost-effective ways in which to save energy. Insulating unfilled cavity walls can save up to 30 per cent of your heating energy and will pay for itself within a few years.

* Ultra-wasteful options: avoid patio heaters; air conditioning; a large, frost-free fridge-freezer; a power shower; a 300-500W security light that switches on all the time; heating your conservatory.

TRAVEL USE

Again, your first step here should be to face the facts. Begin by writing up your own transport use diary, for a week or a month. Note the day of the week, time, origin, destination, purpose, method, cost and duration of each trip. This information will be critical in helping you to prioritise changes in your patterns of travel.

Having understood your patterns, you may find it easier to see ways of making them less carbon-expensive. Flying needs to be drastically reduced: it is not only the most damaging means of travel per mile but is also associated with the longest journeys, and thus adds both considerably and disproportionately to climate change

Other changes might include walking and cycling for local trips; using more buses; combining several purposes in one journey; or simply cutting out less essential long-distance car and rail journeys.

It is also possible to reduce your own carbon emissions when you do travel by car. Government advice includes:

* Plan ahead: choose uncongested routes, combine trips, share cars.

* Cold starts: drive off as soon as possible after starting.

* Drive smoothly and efficiently: avoid harsh acceleration and heavy braking.

* Travel at slower speeds: driving at 70mph uses 30 per cent more fuel than driving at 50mph.

* Use higher gears.

* Switch off the engine when stationary.

* Don't carry unnecessary weight.

* Use air conditioning sparingly.

GENERAL USE

Individuals are also responsible for, and can control, their indirect energy use as consumers. Modifications to consider include:

* Buy food and drink that has not been transported over long distances. Where possible, buy local, or at least British, produce.

* Choose more seasonal food, which is less likely to have been grown abroad or in heated greenhouses in the UK.

* Buy recycled products, or those with a high recycled content.

* Buy products that are recyclable, and whose packaging can be recycled.

* Avoid disposable products. Buy better quality ones, which have a longer life.

* Reduce the amount of waste you produce. Re-use what you can, and recycle the rest.

* Compost garden and vegetable waste.

Incorporating all these changes into your lifestyle will not be easy. But that does not mean that - if we adopt carbon rationing - they will all be negative. On the contrary, many of them should be highly positive in their effects. Better health, quieter and safer streets, more stable communities, less oil dependency, and less road danger will be among the wide range of likely benefits.

But they run counter to current trends in society, and require thought and commitment. The challenge facing us is to invest that thought and commitment today, while there is still time. It is all too clear that we cannot go on as we are now, paying little more than lip service to this most critical of issues.

If we in the developed world do not agree to substantially restrict our own carbon dioxide emissions, there are only two possible outcomes. Either we will witness and bear the costs of an inevitable and devastating intensification for future generations of the problems caused by climate change - as well as the burden on our consciences. Or poorer people, mainly in developing countries, will have to be prevented from having their fair share of the fossil fuels required to maintain even a basic standard of living. Burying our heads in the sand on this topic to avoid facing reality cannot continue.

Responsibility lies with government to take the lead in international negotiations for the urgent adoption of the contraction and convergence framework, and for the early introduction of an equal per capita annual carbon ration.

We have to choose a better future.

Dr Mayer Hillman is Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute. This article is an edited extract from 'How We Can Save the Planet', by Mayer Hillman, with Tina Fawcett (Penguin, £7.99)

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