Op-Ed on Pollution
CUTTING EMISSIONS IS AS OPTIONAL AS BREATHING
Below is a guest editorial from our friends at the New Economics Foundation.
by Andrew Simms, New Economics FoundationIs there a point negotiating on how far to build a bridge across a canyon? The mistake made by the United States and the industrialised countries working on the Kyoto Protocol is to treat scientific advice on targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions as optional. In fact, they are as optional as breathing. Fail to meet them and we will lose a livable atmosphere. The storm of haggling over curbing emissions missed that adequate action is ultimately non-negotiable and represents unimaginable economic consequences.
Whatever political agreement is signed such as the Kyoto Protocol, or another more logical and embracing deal like contraction and convergence, industrialised countries will need to radically change how they live. George Bush raises the spectre of growing emissions from developing countries. But an average US citizen is still responsible for around 20 times the carbon dioxide emissions of a person from India and 300 times that of someone from Mozambique.
A range of estimates from the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UN Environment Programme point to rich countries needing to reduce emissions by anything up to 90 per cent. How could it be done?
Too much faith has been put in technology. In a global economy driven by crude growth, efficiency gains are constrained by the laws of physics. Astrophysicist Alberto Di Fazio compared greenhouse gas accumulations to world industrial output over time and found a correlation that was almost 'total'. Without radical cuts in day-to-day consumption, the extra time that technology could create Di Fazio considers to be 'negligible'. For example, the average car from all but one major manufacturer in the US, today produces more greenhouse gasses than ten years ago. The 'weightless economy' is getting heavier.
It turns out that individual life choices are crucial, not just about middle class hand-wringing. However, there are few precedents for widespread lifestyle change. Short of universal downshifting, or conversion to anti-materialistic religions, only war economies provide an approximate analogy. All the major industrialised countries have recent experience of them.
They can generate senses of extended responsibility, purpose and focus. They always involve the complete re-gearing of the economy. The enemy here is a hostile climate, not another country. But the victims of climate change could be more than in any war. According to the insurance industry the economic damage will be greater, global bankruptcy striking around the mid-point of the century. And, similarly, life and death decisions have to be taken amid inescapable uncertainty.
Resource efficiency was a major focus for British people during the Second World War. In six years from 1938 there was a 95 per cent cut in private vehicle use. Public transport increased significantly. Consumption of all goods and services fell 16 per cent in a similar period. A change in diet meant that while people were eating less, they were eating better. Life expectancy for people away from the bombs and bullets increased and infant mortality fell. For some, less really was more.
Behaviour changed partly in response to a massive government information campaign, itself amplified through media as far ranging as Good Housekeeping and Feeding Cats and Dogs in Wartime. It changed because people clearly understood the nature of the threat. New patterns of behaviour became self-policing. Wasting food, material or fuel was seen as anti-social. Rationing was a fact, parameters were set by government, but without public support the country would have been ungovernable.
Poor countries with conventional foreign debts have lived with badly designed 'structural adjustment programmes' for decades. To tackle the ecological debt of global warming, rich countries could now run the equivalent of environmental war economies, working within the framework of 'sustainability adjustment programmes'. Scenarios to meet the 90 per cent emissions cut, and balance the environmental budget, can be drawn for negotiable timeframes over the next 30, 50 or 70 years. All countries in the Earth Summit process are committed to having national sustainability strategies by 2005. So, foundations already exist.
In 1943, Hugh Dalton, president of the Board of Trade said, 'There can be no equality of sacrifice in this war. Some must lose their lives and limbs, others only the turn-ups on their trousers.' In Bangladesh 20 million people are threatened by homelessness due to flooding so that we can drive our sports utility vehicles.
At the time of the first OPEC crisis in the United States a Congressional Declaration of Purpose to shape domestic policy called for 'positive and effective action' to protect 'general welfare... conserve scarce energy supplies' and 'ensure fair and efficient distribution.' Apply this more generally and there is a new global plan to tame a savage climate.
What's your opinion? Tell your views to The Progress Report:
Page One Page Two Archive Discussion Room Letters What's Geoism?