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“If you want to build a ship, don’t call together some men just to gather wood, prepare tools and distribute tasks,” proclaimed the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Instead, teach them the longing for the endless sea.”
The evidence of the recent budget, in which the environment was like a salad leaf abandoned to wilt in the June sun, suggests that the wrong approach has been taken to building a green economy.
It’s a shame, because there is no shortage of tasks and tools to distribute, and a long list of patient, rational reasons why we should do so.
For example, in the recently published Zero Carbon Britain 2030, both the ample potential of switching in a short period of time to a genuinely clean energy system, and the dangers of not doing so, are comprehensively examined. In these austerity-minded times in which the government is acutely concerned about our balance of trade, a single figure makes the point: based on an oil price of $78 a barrel, which could prove far too modest, replacing our own North Sea oil and gas with like-for-like imports will add £53 billion to the trade deficit, the report estimates.
Even at a time of broader cuts, the potential economic, social and environmental benefits of spending on a carbon detox for the UK economy have been repeatedly and exhaustively made.
Neither is there any mystery about the necessary conditions needed to make it happen. New sources of funding to encourage investment are needed from, for example, a green investment bank, which has been approved but not capitalised, and a high price for carbon to make change economically attractive.
There are the easy, reliable no-brainer initiatives, such as the mass roll-out of energy efficiency makeovers for buildings, wind, wave and solar power, which in turn create jobs. But there is also no shortage of more exotic, less reliable ideas to keep people entertained.
This month, cloud whitening or so-called “seeding” to help reflect heat away from the atmosphere enjoyed a shower of new interest. Research from the Carnegie Institution and the Indian Institute for Science suggested the potential for a cooling effect, but not without consequences. It reduced overall global rainfall and simultaneously created a more extreme pattern of monsoons.
And yet, for all the time that the rational case for action is put and its benefits outlined, we are failing not just to leave the harbour on our journey to an economy that operates in balance with the biosphere, but our boat lies in pieces by the dockside, incomplete and construction barely begun.
A longing for the adventure in unknown seas, in equal parts fearful and exhilarating, is yet to be released. Admittedly, at the moment, this is made more difficult by the fact that when most people watch pictures of the sea, it’s typically covered in a vast oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, courtesy of BP.
On current trends, in 77 months time, by the end of 2016, it will no longer be likely that we will be able to stay on the right side of the risks that surround destabilising our climate system. Yes, we need to start building our low carbon energy arks. But we need more than that, an excited longing for things to be different, better.
The human impulse at the heart of modern society has been brilliantly co-opted by the sellers of disposable, upgradable consumer goods, not to mention by TV makeover shows. Counter-intuitively, in some ways we embrace change – but we demand it in unambitious ways, through novelty, redesigned gadgets with extra functions and added apps. In this sense, we approach the world on the assumption that it is never good enough. The impulse may be destructive when harnessed to conspicuous consumption, but does it have to be a bad thing, innately, and can’t it be dematerialised, and redirected from simply having more stuff towards a better way of being?
The thinker Zygmunt Bauman makes the point that the “the good society is the society that is convinced it is not good enough.” He calls gardeners, “obsessive compulsive utopians,” always trying to improve the world around them in a job that is never complete.
As we try to ensure a world fit for future generations, have a look around and ask yourselves, is this the best that we can do? What would it take, and what could we achieve if we were able to harness our transformative impulse for good? Instead of tying ourselves into a bloodless, technocratic exercise, what if we were able to find a longing for the endless sea?
We may be in the grip of the worst economic upheaval for half a century, but the UK is still at heart a forward-looking, modern economy, isn’t it? Smogs and satanic mills are things of the past and we have a model that is resource-light and service driven, don’t we?
Perhaps not. In the UK for the first quarter of this year, £1 in every £4 paid in dividends to shareholders came from a single industry: oil and gas. And, from that sector, just two companies – BP and Shell – accounted for the vast majority.
If the banking crisis taught us one thing, it is that putting too many of your economic eggs in one sector’s basket is a very bad idea. In banking it was a bad idea because they practised Narnia-nomics (which is probably a slur on Narnia). With the oil and gas sector it is a bad idea for two reasons, which may seem contradictory: the products are both very damaging and have no long-term future. Unfortunately, however, there’s still enough oil and gas left to cause more damage than the planet can handle (and an awful lot of coal, which people may turn to as the other fossil fuels become more expensive and harder to get).
Where the damage is concerned emissions continue to drive the loss of a climate system conducive to stable, flourishing societies. A combination of steadily rising greenhouse gas concentrations and temperatures suggest that in around 78 months we will enter a new, more dangerous category of risk for creeping climatic instability, reason enough perhaps, to disinvest in fossil fuels.
The second reason is that an economy so hard-wired to the oil and gas sector is hitching its future to a long-term loser. We are already decades past the point of peak global oil discoveries, and on the cusp of the peak of oil production.
A new assessment of 14 forecasts of global oil supply underlines how the short-lived empire of oil is already well into its dotage, with the end in sight during our own lifetimes.
Some speculate that the moment at which production levels-off and begins its inexorable decline is already with us. If so, it may be only the recession, which temporarily reduces demand, that is hiding it. Several more forecasts suggest it will happen over the course of this decade – mere seconds away in the calibration of economic planning. Crucially, the study concluded that no credible forecast could put the date more than 20 years away.
Expect to see repeats of BP’s disaster at its Deepwater Horizon rig as companies seek to extend their lives of by exploiting ever-more marginal and hard-to-get reserves. Accidents happen when limits get pushed and an industry becomes increasingly desperate.
While companies like Shell, BP and Exxon may dominate the current economic landscape like leviathans, it is a feature of the end of empires that they seem permanent (especially from within) until, suddenly, they are gone.
All the more important, then, to plan for the inevitable. This is starting to happen. As the peak, plateau and decline of oil production approaches, its price will rise dramatically. Companies that are heavily exposed or, in other words, dependent on the old oil economy, will be at risk. Thinking back to the oil price spike of 2008, the ratings agency Fitch recently reassessed a range of industrial sectors for how vulnerable they will be when oil again knocks on the door of $150 per barrel. Airlines, trucking, chemicals and various consumer goods sectors look to be in big trouble. But railways and renewable energy cash-in.
It’s not just the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico that have fallen victim to our economic dependence on oil, its the climate that we depend on, for example, to grow our food, and will soon also be huge chunks of the economy.
The quicker we arrange a separation between society, the economy and the oil and gas sector, the better. This era-defining problem falls on the watch of the new coalition government. They could start by substantially capitalising the proposed new green investment bank and turning the taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland – that once proudly called itself the “oil and gas bank” and is still up to its neck in fossil-fuel financing – into a Royal Bank of Sustainability. More or less we have just the lifetime of this parliament to get money out of oil and into renewables and low-energy infrastructure.
After the bank bailout, we were left with the question, “where did the money go?”. At least if we put our resources into the great transition away from fossil fuels there would be tangible results. We would be looking at a great wave of new employment opportunities, more energy security, a less vulnerable economy and the chance for a better future.
78 months and counting …
The capture and the long-term storage of CO2 is now central to plans for reducing CO2 emissions from large-scale fossil fuel uses. But new and controversial research argues the storage potential of CO2 may have been overestimated.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) involves the capture of the greenhouse gas CO2 produced from the combustion of fossil fuels. The captured and compressed CO2 is then transported to a location for long-term storage. While several proposals for the storage phase exist, geological storage has received the most attention. This is partly because it is believed to have the least logistical constraints.
While discrete components of a geological CCS system are mature, there is a broad consensus [subscription required] that significant technological and cost improvements are necessary for commercial CCS deployment. But in the absence of large-scale CCS demonstration plants, the technology is still surrounded by a haze of uncertainty such as cost and speed of deployment.
Adding to these uncertainties, a new study published in The Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering argues the potential for geological storage has been significantly overestimated. The results have prompted a very public and highly technical spat. A large body of experts from industry and academia have now contested the paper’s claims. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s always hard to imagine a world fundamentally different to the one we encounter everyday. Even when the balance shifts deeply between established political forces, it feels like there might be a new DJ playing different songs but that you’re still at the same party. The days press in on us with familiar routines, demands and a storm force gale of unchanging multimedia information.
Unless, that is, something happens to really break the routine. Wait long enough and something always will. It wasn’t a gaffe, or a TV debate, but a blast that allowed us all to imagine a truly different world during this election campaign, one in which we are reconnnected to the environment.
In the early hours of Wednesday 14 April 2010, a dormant volcano, covered in ice, with a hard-to-pronounce name (Eyjafjallajökull) exploded. Nobody heard it across northern Europe because the volcano was far away in Iceland, but the skies above them fell silent.
Within hours, airports all over Europe were closing as if giant master switch for the aviation industry had been flicked to off. Why? Fine dust from the vast billowing cloud thrown up by the volcano was lethal to modern jet engines. Planes that had flown through similar clouds in the past had suffered terrifying, nearly disastrous losses of power. For days Europe was grounded. “Five miles up the hush and shush of ash/ Yet the sky is as clean as a white slate,” wrote the poet Carol Ann Duffy.
One of the main arteries of the modern world – cheap, ubiquitous air travel – was suddenly cut. What happened next was revelatory, and possibly a glimpse of a future world in which both climate change and strictly limited oil supplies have clipped the industry’s wings.
Philosophers, poets and stranded travellers filled the airwaves with reflections. Yes, it was inconvenient, they said, of course it was. No one was prepared for it. But suddenly the skies were peaceful. People found other ways to get from one place to another. They took trains, buses, taxis and shared cars. They talked to each other and, travelling at a slower pace, found themselves enjoying the scenery and being more aware of the world they were passing through. Most strikingly, as flying was something we thought we couldn’t live without, the world did not come to a standstill.
The sky didn’t fall, it just looked more peaceful. We heard more clearly, as Duffy wrote, “the birds sing in the Spring”. Almost everything simply carried on. The airlines suffered economically, but it revealed how few of the things we depend on for day-to-day life really relied on the airlines. Life would be different without them (or far fewer of them) but life would go on, as it had done for thousands of years.
Kew Gardens in south London is famous for two things. One is its stunning botanical collection, the other is that it lies on the approach to Heathrow airport. Normally, visitors have their appreciation of nature interrupted by low-flying aircraft every few seconds. If you had visited Kew during the brief ceasefire in the skies in April, you would have seen crowds of people staring in quiet wonderment at what was missing from the air above their heads. Like many others, behind the bluster of the threatened airline industry, I suspect they had the creeping sensation, that thanks to a random geological event on a faraway island, we had all stumbled upon a different and better world.
Of course, this is not what our political masters had planned. Quite the contrary. Typical of rich countries, the British government is planning for the number of air passengers using its airports to treble from around 200 million to 500 million by 2030. And, if aviation is allowed to grow, by 2050 it will account for between half and all of the UK’s acceptable carbon emissions, even if the growth slows down. Yet, those few days in April revealed that even in the most dramatic circumstances, of the complete, sudden, unexpected closure of airspace over northern Europe, we could adapt.
Scandalously, the environment, our underlying physical life support system, has been considered worth barely a mention during the election campaign. But, interestingly, both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have said they oppose a new runway at Heathrow. With that, and holding recent memories, as the poet put it, of the clear skies’ “silent summons”, perhaps we’ll remember that change is not only possible, it actually happens. Whoever gets elected, they will have about 79 months and counting, to make a real difference on climate change.
I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen a pure blue sky without the tapestry of contrails that sketch out the invisible highways of the global aviation network.
The reality of the closed airspace due to the volcanic plume from an eruption near the Icelandic glacier Eyjafjallajoekull (pronounced aya-feeyapla-yurkul) hit me whilst strolling back along the Southbank on a warm spring Sunday afternoon. As I walked along the river, the world seemed strangely calm. The overhead roar of jet engines from aircraft as they march with military precession along the flight path to Heathrow, were conspicuous by their absence.
But, such events also reveal that we are hugely dependent on what often seems like hidden infrastructure, woven together to create an intricate web of interdependence across the globe.
At the turn of the 1900s in the US there was a progressive campaign to establish a shorter, eight-hour working day. It was opposed by the National Association of Manufacturers (Nam) as potentially ruinous to the economy – on much the same grounds that the abolition of slavery, the introduction of the maximum load line in shipping and most other progressive reforms throughout history have been opposed. In the 1920s Nam also lobbied against a shorter, five-day working week. In the 1930s, however, Nam paid for a billboard advertising campaign boasting that the US had the “world’s shortest working hours”, underlining the point with “there’s no way like the American way”. Nothing succeeds like success.
When Barack Obama’s administration finally won its viciously contested plan to provide healthcare insurance to 32 million of its lowest-paid citizens, it subtly changed the chemistry of what might be possible in a range of other policy areas.
Having been on the back foot for much of his first year in power, Obama is emboldened both by success and the awareness that Americans like a winner. In the odd political ecosystem, the survival of health reform has direct implications for the viability of action on climate change. Some connections are obvious, others less so.
Greater weather extremes due to warming, such as heat waves and extreme events, have huge health implications.
So do other impacts related to the intensive use of fossil fuels. Deaths and injury resulting from traffic incidents and respiratory problems linked to transport-related air pollution both figure high on the World Health Organisation’s list of major global health threats.
But there are links, too, in the psychology of the solutions. Insurance is an intelligent, collective way to manage risk. As long as the providers of insurance are not allowed to distort its purpose by milking stakeholders for profit, it means that very many, regular and relatively small individual contributions can provide a very large safety net. Making it mandatory deters free riders and delivers universal cover. As with health, why not also with the climate?
The ban on smoking in public buildings draws another interesting line in the debate on the proper balance between “freedoms from” and “freedoms to”. This is on the basis that one person’s freedom to smoke in a public building denies another person’s freedom to breathe smoke-free air. The greenhouse gas emissions currently contributing to climatic instability could be seen as an issue of “uber passive smoking”, especially for those who like their climates to be friendly and convivial for human society.
Seeing banks like RBS, bailed-out and owned by the public, wriggle and squirm in regard to their fossil fuel investments, is to be reminded of tobacco companies floundering in the court of expert health and public opinion.
On the day that the head of “corporate sustainability” at RBS refuted has bank’s deep involvement in particularly dirty fossil fuel projects, the bank opened an office in Calgary, Canada, the very heart of oil tar sands developments. It was also hard to explain the $7.5bn of financial support given by RBS over two years to a range of the major oil companies.
Can things be turned around in the few years left in which we can make a real difference? Leading figures at the more establishment-friendly end of the environmental spectrum think so. The Last Parliament initiative, co-ordinated by Green Alliance, makes the point that the next government will either lay the foundations for rapid transition to a low carbon economy and keep our options open – or it won’t.
If the latter happens, it will feed the mildly misanthropic pessimism of gurus like James Lovelock, who advocated the Gaia hypothesis that Earth is a self-regulating system.
Unfortunately, according to Lovelock, if the Earth self-regulates under global warming he reckons that will leave life support systems for only around a billion people.
Oddly, though, for a scientist, his lack of faith in human ingenuity is highly unscientific. His implicit message of “abandon hope all ye who enter” the warming world ignores the many occasions throughout history when societies have achieved rapid transition.
The danger is that indulging a complacent negativity can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We know that change is possible. But if, instead of applying humanity’s immense capacity for creative, community based problem-solving, all some of our best minds do is spoonfeed the “league of no”, our fabulous experiment in civilisation will be written off as a bad April fool’s joke. Eighty months and counting …
The world is not run according to climate science. Amid the almost hysterical jeering since the Copenhagen climate summit, it’s a fact worth remembering. If things were done with one eye carefully checking the planet’s ecological engines and the resource levels in its fuel tank, it would look very different The largest indoor snow park in the world would not, for example, be in the roasting Middle Eastern emirate of Dubai. Public transport would be quick and cheap, and Richard Branson would be an unknown gardener, quietly cycling back and forth to his organically-run allotment.
Yet fear of the likely adjustments needed to halt dangerous climate change seems to fuel the vitriol of the vociferous minority attacking climate science. It’s odd when you think what those changes might be. A cartoon currently going around sums it up. An academic-type gives a lecture, listing the outcomes of climate action: energy independence, clean water, clean air, green jobs, liveable cities, healthy children etc etc, while a man in the audience blusters, “But what if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”
And, it’s not, of course, a hoax. The basic chemistry of global warming has been understood and remained unchanged for around 200 years. Stories concerning the science in recent weeks have been of the type, “how long can you hold your breath?” Not “can we actually breathe underwater?” At the same time, observed trends on greenhouse gas emissions, measured since the last major report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reveal the opposite of scaremongering.
If anything, the IPCC has been too conservative, having underestimated how quickly we would be pushed toward dangerous change. Actual carbon emissions have been beyond even their “most fossil-fuel-intensive scenario”. Crowing over the inclusion in its last report of an erroneous date for the melting of Himalayan glaciers drowned out a new report from the World Glacier Monitoring Service, that detailed an “unbroken acceleration in melting” of glaciers around the world.
Sadly, right now, the climate change deniers have little to fear. We have no policies or actions remotely equal to the threat. Why is that? It is partly because the world is not run in respect of basic, well-understood physical laws. It is run according to the dictates of an altogether more variable discipline, economics, whose insights and proposals are subject to a weaker scrutiny. The real world ticks reliably according to the laws on thermodynamics and the conservation of energy. Such consistency cannot be claimed for the notion that a deregulated, greed-driven approach is the most efficient way to organise banking. But what if economic policy was subject to the same standard of evidence and review as climate science?
What would natural science make of the assumptions underlying mainstream economic models? They include the classic assertions that we are all perfectly rational, make choices that are unaffected by the behaviour of others, and that we have “perfect information”, knowing everything important there is to know. Or there’s the one in which an infinite number of small firms compete in open markets with no barriers to entry (think Walmart, Microsoft, Amazon, Tesco, Google). And the idea that consumption can grow infinitely on a finite planet.
Orthodox economics is based on simplifications that so distort the real world as to make it unrecognisable, yet its basic tenets are credulously repeated on an almost daily basis in national newspapers and on television news. A genuinely evidence-based approach to economic policymaking would not produce a system remotely like the one we have, the business-as-usual version that many climate sceptics seem so eager to defend. Given its task, the vast range of subjects covered, the thousands of scientists involved, and the sheer size of its reports, what’s stunning about the IPCC’s work is that comparing it to any economic analysis used to actually run the world is like comparing the complete Oxford English Dictionary to a guide to slang published by the Sunday Sport.
Elsewhere, some voices have called for there to be a separate climate sceptics’ report. On one hand, this misses the point. If the sceptics’ science was good enough to be published in decent, peer-reviewed journals, it would be considered alongside everything else by the IPCC. But on the other hand, subjecting the deniers to the same degree of rigorous review as everyone else is a rather delicious prospect. If that was done, the final report would likely be short indeed.
And, on current trends, it is still the case that by the end of the year 2016, the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will make it unlikely that we’ll stay below the critical 2°C temperature rise. It’s 82 months and counting…
The mother of all hangovers on 1 January 2010 has nothing to do with alcohol. From London to Washington DC it’s the result of waking up to find that the world’s most populated country, in whose economy we are inextricably entwined, doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. From deciding the fate of civilisation’s climate, to the judicial killing of mentally ill people, China, bluntly, is going its own way. But world leaders or newspaper columnists pompously taking the moral high ground against such a disdainful dictatorship is quite futile. The shape of the current global economic realignment has a momentum and trajectory shaped by centuries of geopolitics. It also has a direction that we, having created and gloried in the consumerist model, are actively still encouraging. Only last August Tony Blair defended a tripling of traffic in China over the next decade.
Unless these dynamics are understood, no amount of hand-wringing at United Nations’ climate conferences or on national news will make the slightest difference.
The great economic historian Paul Bairoch pointed how, up until the middle of the 18th century, the average standard of living in Europe was probably lower than that of the rest of the world. In 1700 China’s share of world GDP was estimated to be just under a quarter, on a par with Europe and India. By the middle of the 20th century, two and a half centuries later, Europe’s share had risen to nearly a third while China’s had fallen to 5%, and India’s to under 4%. Was this the result of the internal brilliance, creativity and liberating power of the free market? On the contrary, it was more to do with the fact that their competition was, “forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium and (in the case of Britain) a Lancashire-imposed system of one-way tariffs,” according to historian Mike Davis.
History does not excuse China playing hardball with the environmental future of humanity (not to mention human rights and democracy), but it certainly goes a long way to explaining their dismissive attitude to the exhortations of the international community. India’s approach to climate negotiations can fall into a similar category.
We are in a trap of our own making, both historically and in the way that China’s current economic development is premised on rising consumption in places like Europe and North America, where people already over-consume.
It’s not only to do with climate change and the use of fossil fuels. Whether its rare minerals and timber from Africa, or farmland elsewhere in Asia, China is scouring the world to feed its export-led development strategy. In September last year, scientists reported in the journal Nature that globally we have already crossed the safe planetary boundaries of three out of nine critical environmental life support systems. Growing aggregate world consumption and waste production cannot be further sustained.
But China follows a simple logic. Rather than the flawed model that defeated so many developing countries, by integrating into the world and trading more on its own terms, all China is doing, ironically, is to emulate what worked for Britain and the US in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Now, with just 83 months to go before it is no longer “likely”, to use the IPCC definition of climate change risk, that we will stay below the critical 2 degree temperature rise, our options are limited. Rich countries have no choice but to lead by example in setting a different, less destructive model for economic success, that does not rely on endless growth in consumption. This has barely begun. They also have to realise that the hollow annual charade at meetings of the G8 or G20, which endorses greater global economic equality but then ignores the mechanics of its delivery will have to end. With relatively painless innovations like the financial transactions tax, it easily could.
We have seven years to turn things around until the end of 2016. The power of seven: the number of sins, the hills upon which Rome was built and the ages of man. Perhaps more important now is the notion of the seventh generation, to consider what will be the impact of decisions made today on seven generations hence. You could call it the “responsibility of the long now,’ an approach used by many indigenous people that forces us to connect across time to those you could not possibly know. A greater sense of history may help us negotiate more effectively with China. A greater sensitivity to the future may enable us to live better with ourselves. Happy new year, and make every month count …
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 …
Many people forget that the basic principles for the Copenhagen negotiations were set long ago at the Earth Summit in 1992. Rich countries were supposed to go first, fastest and furthest, and pay to help others follow in the footsteps. They failed in every single aspect. Consequently, all they can do now is beg, grovel and implore the major low income countries – the likes of Brazil, India and China – to participate willingly, and in good faith.
Of course, it’s not that simple. The “Why should we, when you didn’t and still aren’t?” position may feel smugly strong to negotiators from the global south. But, it needs to be used with extreme caution. Played with too much zeal, while living on the frontline of climate change, they might find that the house of economic development which they hope to move into has burned down long before they get there.
Without a genuine, global commitment to prevent an accumulation of greenhouse gases that is likely to push us over a 2C temperature rise, we could be giving a whole new meaning to the idea of a “scorched earth” policy.
It’s all too easy to imagine a carbon stand-off that has tragic, violent consequences. Western consumers are repeatedly told by their politicians that little matters if China doesn’t play ball. Meanwhile, China views the nihilistic inaction of western societies with a shrug, and keeps building coal-fired power stations. Small behaviour changes happen in the United States, a bit more renewable energy comes on tap, but the bigger policy stays in place: the real fireworks of using the world’s largest military to control declining oil supplies.
The latter gets sustained by its own weirdly self-supporting logic. Since becoming oil-dependent in the early 20th century, the dominant superpower’s military might is used to ensure the fuel supplies that, in turn, keep its own military functioning and mobile. Up to the first world war, it was the British and their navy. Afterwards, it was the US with its air, land and naval forces.
It’s possibly the greatest energy inefficiency we have, not to mention the way that this military “oil protection racket” also removes the incentive for energy alternatives to develop.
In a single year (2007) the US military spent over $12bn on fuel, using the equivalent of 363,000 barrels of oil per day. It is thought to be the biggest institutional buyer of oil in the world. To put those numbers into perspective, it means that just one nation’s military fuel use was almost double that another entire nation, Ireland.
With so much locked into the continuing use and extraction of oil and coal, what will it take for everyone to raise their sights?
The European Union’s murky statement that developing countries would need €100bn per year by 2020 to tackle climate change, but without being very clear how much would come from where, was less than inspiring. Those who remember the 1992 Earth Summit might get a sense of déjà vu, as back then the summit concluded that $125bn new money from rich to poor countries would be needed annually to implement its agreements, virtually none of which was forthcoming. And let’s not pretend that, even during the global recession, the money is not out there.
If radical steps are not taken when the climatic conditions on which civilisation depends are under threat, when will they be? Why not, quite seriously, impose a near-100% tax on the profits of the oil majors for the next five years? All the proceeds could then be invested into both beginning the great low-carbon transition at home, and delivering the financial resources without which a meaningful Copenhagen deal will not be agreed. At a stroke, it would generate the vast majority of the funds that most say is essential. We’d also be able to save billions in that other area quite rightly referred to as “unproductive expenditure”, the military.