The United Nations Climate Change Conference gets under way in Copenhagen this week. There’s a lot at stake. We need a global commitment from all nations to adopt a low-carbon path for the future, and we need to get on that path fast. There’s simply no alternative if we want our children and grandchildren to live in a world that we would recognise.
I’m somewhat optimistic about the outcome. I certainly don’t think that the conference will result in an agreement that can prevent catastrophic climate-change in itself. Even if it did, we still have to make sure that it gets implemented, and that’s going to take decades of work. Signing a piece of paper this year will not be enough, even it if says all the right things.
So why am I optimistic? Grab a cup of tea, sit down, and I’ll tell you.
Most governments have made some form of commitment in recent weeks, even those that had steadfastly resisted pressure to do so in the past. The United States has pledged a 17% cut in emissions from 2005 levels by 2020. China will aim to reduce ‘carbon-intensity’ by 40-45% by 2020, and India will reduce its carbon intensity by 20-25%, also by 2020.
On the one hand, it’s great to see such statements in the leadup to the conference. On the other, of course, those levels of cuts are not enough to make any difference to the changing climate. Compared to 1990 levels, the US figure corresponds to a cut of just 2%, while the Chinese and Indian carbon-intensity targets mean even less.
Carbon intensity is like car mileage, you can drive more efficiently to improve your mileage, but if you drive further as well, you may still burn more petrol. China plans to grow its economy at 8% per year. That would mean that by 2020 Chinas’ emissions will be almost double the 2005 level.
Of course, there will be lots of finger-pointing, with people on all sides calling for others to do more, while claiming that they are doing their share already, or that they do not want to do more until other countries commit themselves to do more. Playing ‘chicken’ with the climate is not what we really want to see in Copenhagen. Some will point out that China emits more CO2 than any other country. Others will point out that the US emits more per person than any other country (sorry, almost any other country.).
You can see the emissions per person for a number of countries in the graph, below, taken from David MacKay‘s free ebook, Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air. That graph is for the year 2000, and you can clearly see that the ‘developed world’ is emitting far more CO2 per person than China or India, for example.
So it seems to me that the developed world has a clear moral obligation to take the lead in cutting emissions. Of course, everyone has to play their part, but there’s no need for anyone to wait, we can and should be cutting deeply, now. Unfortunately, politicians end up discussing the financial cost of action instead, arguing about how much money it will take to change, and what will it do to their countries’ economy. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s your money they’re protecting either. No, it’s the money of big corporations that lobby hard to protect their interests.
Big corporations have always worked to protect themselves. The gas companies opposed Thomas Edison when he wanted to light the streets with electricity, for example. The reality is that every year of delay only increases the financial costs down the line. Will we have to change the way we live in order to tackle climate change? Yes, we will. Will it have an effect on our economies? Yes, of course. But will it hurt you, or me? Not necessarily.
Thomas Edison changed our lives for the better. Henry Ford changed our lives when he established the automobile industry. Other changes are more gradual, like from theatre to silent films, to talkies, to television, to videos, and now to satellite and internet TV. The entertainment industry has changed drastically in that time, and people have changed with it.
Changing our way of life is very much part of our way of life, and that’s a good thing. When we realise that fact, tackling climate change will not seem difficult or painful, it will appear as the opportunity it is. Unless you’re the CEO of a fossil-fuel company, of course.
So that’s one reason why I’m optimistic. I believe people can come to terms with the changes needed to tackle climate change, once they realise it is in their personal interest and the interests of their family to do so. For that to happen, we just need to look at who is behind the voices opposed to doing anything.
If you’re among those who think climate change is not a real problem, ask yourself this: where did you get the information that led you to that opinion? What motivates the person who tells you not to worry about climate change? What’s in it for them if you believe them?
Dig deep enough, and you’ll probably smell oil. Sometimes its obvious, such as the recent article in Scientific American, but often you have to dig deeper. If you do, you’ll probably find you are being conned by industry-funded PR campaigns.
Regular readers of this blog will know I’m fond of quoting President Nasheed of the Maldives. Well, I’m going to do it again. In a recent speech, he expressed himself very clearly:
Here in the Maldives we have relinquished our claim to high-carbon growth. After all, it is not carbon we want, but development. It is not coal we want, but electricity. It is not oil we want, but transport. Low-carbon technologies now exist, to deliver all the goods and services we need. Let us make the goal of using them.
Wouldn’t it be nice if a few other leaders could make a stand with President Nasheed, and offer us development, electricity, and transport, instead of coal and oil?