On the eve of the Copenhagen climate summit we seem to be poised between the possibility of new directions for the world, and meek capitulation to environmental upheaval. Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says we have just months to take large-scale action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He calls on developing countries not to try to copy western consumer lifestyles.
In an interview to be broadcast on the BBC, he adds that growth and rising GDP are an “extremely harmful” way to measure human progress. Pachauri’s determination to think about fresh solutions, from championing less meat-eating to challenging bad economics, is a lesson to commentators who affect weariness and distaste at yet another reminder of the extreme consequences of our lifestyles.
It’s a call to rise above national and sectoral interests. But it’s not easy. Point scoring in global talks often becomes more important to negotiators than preserving a planet fit for civilisation. Worse still, as the problem becomes ever clearer, a collective cultural “Am I bovvered?” seems to rise from the most materially comfortable and least likely to suffer.
But are people really saying that it’s just not worth fighting for the climatic conditions that make life both enjoyable and possible? If somebody threatened your child, what would you do? Only the sociopathic or comatose would sit by and let the people they love be threatened without acting. Yet inadequate climate action is the equivalent of inviting threats to our offspring. And in front of us there are clear but diminishing opportunities that really could solve the problem. We’re still living in the grip of a consumption explosion. Our material consumption is rising at the same time that nature’s ability to provide resources and absorb waste is weakening. Human overuse seems to be undermining available biocapacity.
The latest data on humanity’s global ecological footprint makes worrying reading. The UK’s footprint makes our level of consumption even less sustainable: it would take at least 3.4 planets for everyone to live at our level. Globally we are using resources and pumping out carbon emissions at a rate 44% faster than the biosphere can take. It now takes just under 18 months for the earth to produce the ecological services humanity uses in one year.
As Pachauri writes in the foreword to a new report, Other Worlds Are Possible: “It is crucial that we engage in fresh ways of thinking about development and sustainability.” Too often rich countries excuse their own inaction by pointing at the rising consumption of poor countries – as if that is the true problem. It’s convenient, but ignores what many other voices from the global south are saying.
Writing in the same report, the leading Indian economist Professor Jayati Ghosh takes a different view: “The presumptions and aspirations of what constitutes a civilised life will have to be modified. The model popularised by ‘the American Dream’ is perhaps the most dangerous in this context, with its emphasis on suburban residential communities far from places of work, market and entertainment and linked only through private motorised transport.” The Chilean economist Professor Manfred Max-Neef is similarly dissenting: ‘Solutions imply new models that, above all else, begin to accept the limits of the carrying capacity of the earth: moving from efficiency to sufficiency and wellbeing.”
Some of those solutions are right under our noses, according to the energy researchers Mark Z Jacobson and Mark A Delucchi. Writing in the November edition of Scientific American, they describe how, by 2030, the world could shift to a virtually zero carbon energy system. Their model is based only on existing technology that can already be applied on a large scale, and excludes nuclear power and fossil fuels. It calls for, globally, the building of 3.8m large wind turbines (wind being 25 times more carbon efficient than nuclear power), 90,000 solar plants and a combination of geothermal, tidal and rooftop solar-PV installations globally.
They admit the scheme is bold, but it follows Al Gore’s challenge for the US to abandon fossil fuel power in the next decade. In terms of the physical challenge of producing so much renewable generating capacity, they point out that the world already produces 73m cars and light trucks every year.
People forget, perhaps, the effort it took to get us hooked on oil in the first place. As Jacobson and Delucchi point out, starting in 1956 the US interstate highway system managed to build 47,000 miles of highway in just over three decades, “changing commerce and society”.
84 months and counting …