Will profit wreck the Earth?

Submitted by Anon on 20 February, 2005 - 3:52

In January the International Climate Change Taskforce Report concluded that drastic action was necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stave off immensely damaging and irreversible climate change. On 16 February the Kyoto Protocol on limiting emissions came into operation. We asked environmental campaigners for their evaluations and for their thoughts on alternative energy sources and use.

Less spin please

Dr Spencer Fitzgibbons, Green Party spokesperson on Climate Change

We keep seeing official reports predicting disaster on climate change, but governments simply go on increasing emissions. We have seen an intensification of Tony Blair’s concern about climate change, but he has not put the right policies into effect. Labour has taken tentative steps forward on the issue, in some respects, but far more in terms of intensifying their spin.

With a general election looming, and increasing public concern on the issue, all the parties want to sound like the party that will stop climate change.

Kyoto is useful because it provide an international framework, with agreed targets and so on. It was big step forward. It is good news that Russia has signed up because it increases Kyoto’s credibility. It may help to draw other countries in — US and Australia — but I wouldn’t be over-optimistic about that. Although the USA is the biggest polluter and although it would be extremely useful to have them on board, we still have to act.

Plus a more important factor now is what will happen with developing countries, with China and India.

Now we have to move on to look at more challenging targets for reducing emissions. The Green Party says the UK should have a global reduction of 90% by 2050 and more recently we have said that we need that kind of reduction by around 2030. It is completely unrealistic and unfair to expect developing countries to have those kinds of targets. That is why already developed and high polluting countries have got to aim for much bigger targets.

None of the other parties have as high targets, targets which are necessary if we are to tackle this issue.

A 90% target needs a comprehensive package of policies. Energy conservation is a start. We put forward an Energy Conservation Bill in Parliament which had the support of 400 MPs, but the government saw it off. But it has already been before Parliament and has been seen as viable.

Other measures could be: improving the energy efficiency of electrical goods; improvements in transport; reversing the tendency of people to travel long distances to work; decentralising the economy so that goods do not travel miles to get to the consumer; development of more balanced economies so that basic goods are made close to home.

These measures would challenge corporate interests. Corporations run for profit. If burning fossil fuels means profit, that is what they will do.

If we don’t want them to get away with it then we have to change the relations between corporations and democratically-elected government. And politics is at the moment evolving towards corporations.

Whatever issue you are talking about — climate change or anything else — you always end up concluding that there has to be a more democratically-organised society, you have to ensure the corporations cannot exercise the power they have right now.

Developed world must lead the way

From Friends of the Earth

The UN Kyoto climate treaty is only a modest first step towards tackling climate change. More drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are desperately needed to combat global warming. Friends of the Earth is calling for:

  • Tony Blair to ensure international action on climate change through his Presidency of the G8 and of the EU in the second-half of 2005;
  • Lead by example by taking decisive action at home to ensure a year-on-year reduction in UK carbon dioxide emissions
  • The European Union to earmark targets for future gas emission cuts after the first commitment period of Kyoto ends in 2012. Unfortunately the EU refused to commit itself to further action on 9 February;
  • The United States, the world’s biggest polluter, and Australia, to join the international community in the fight against global warming.
  • Official negotiations in November this year will begin to discuss commitments post 2012 when the first Kyoto commitment period is due to end. One key question will be how to tackle fast growing emissions from emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil and introduce policies that decouple economic growth from emissions.
  • Friends of the Earth believes that Western countries which have enjoyed economic growth through the burning of fossil fuels, (and have therefore contributed most to climate change) must help finance low carbon development in the developing world, and phase out public financing of fossil fuels and into cleaner energies.

Capitalism is the problem

Mike Davies, Alliance for Green Socialism

A world controlled both economically and politically by multinational capital cannot effectively address global warming. The fundamental problem is not, as the Green Party would have us believe, developing technical fixes and persuading people of goodwill to implement them. The problem is that the very basis of capitalism is endless growth and the unconstrained pursuit of short term profit. Both of these are necessarily destructive of the environment — in the case of climate change, fatally destructive.

The ICCT recommendations, like the Kyoto Protocol, are a small technical nudge in the right direction. But, like Kyoto, they are quite inadequate for the scale of the problem and fail to address its underlying cause. If you look at the membership of the ICCT panel and its secretariat, this is unsurprising — many of them are right-wing politicians and industrialists, hardly the people to challenge capitalism or its effects. Even its terms of reference reflect this.

The ICCT presents its most radical proposal as “to prevent global average temperature from rising more than 20C”. But, when you look at the small print, even this is an illusion. Their proposal actually accepts temperature rises above this level for the whole of this century, merely aiming to bring them back down for 2100. Capitalists are being asked to commit to a target that does not come into effect for a hundred years! Yet some scientists predict that positive feedback — global warming setting in train new phenomena which further increase the release of greenhouse gases — may start a runaway increase in temperature within as little as ten years.

Kyoto will not stop global warming. The terms of Kyoto were not based on scientific advice on what was needed but on political advice on what the major capitalist governments might accept. Even so, the main cause of the problem, the USA, withdrew. The US produces around a third of the total greenhouse gases emitted in the whole world. Kyoto represents a world-wide recognition of the problem, but not a solution.

From a technical perspective, the biggest source of greenhouse gases is the burning of carbon based fossil fuels. There are a wide range of alternative, renewable sources of energy that do not cause global warming. These include including land wind farms, sea wind farms, tidal power, wave power, hydroelectricity, solar power and bio-mass. If research into these had received a tenth of the funding and subsidies poured into research into nuclear power, today’s energy equation would look very different.

Nuclear power is no alternative. In the 1950s nuclear power was lauded in the press as both “clean” and “probably too cheap to meter”. In fact nuclear electricity has always been more expensive to produce than conventional electricity. As for “clean” that is evidently a sick joke.

Nuclear power stations generate huge amounts of radioactive waste, much of which will still be deadly in ten thousand years time and more — 400 generations from now. Further, nuclear power contributes large amounts to global warming. Huge amounts of energy are used in the construction of a nuclear power station, and in the production of the materials used. Large amounts are used in its operation and maintenance, including disposal of its toxic by-products. And huge amounts again — perhaps incalculably huge — are used in decommissioning and in disposal of its actual fabric. Nuclear power is no part of any sane technical solution.

Politics must decide

Mark Lynas

The ICC report is a timely warning that we cannot wait much longer for serious global efforts to bring down greenhouse gas emissions. This is a political rather than a scientific report, which is also appropriate given that scientists keep repeating that it is not up to them to define emissions limits — such a decision needs to be a political one.

The Kyoto protocol is again a political treaty, and as such is a major step forward in the geopolitical momentum of greenhouse gas regulation. It will have no measureable effect on the climate, however, because it is too weak. But it will for the first time force ratifying governments to take seriously the issue of climate change in their economic development.

We could certainly substitute clean energy supplies in a fairly rapid transition and still mitigate the worst effects of climate change. But we cannot just rely on a technological change in the context of everlasting economic growth — at some point the world will have to face up to the fact that you cannot continually increase consumption for humanity on a planet of finite resources.

Mark Lynas is the founder of OneWorld and more recently a broadcast commentator and journalist. He is the author of High Tide: News from a Warming World (Flamingo Press).

The right wing view

Anthropogenic [human-caused] C02 emissions are estimated to be about 3-4% of naturally-occurring emissions and much or even all of these may be reabsorbed by the biosphere and oceans. Some scientists argue that any anthropogenic effects are negligible against the background of natural emissions of these same gases, while others argue that even this difference is enough to upset the balance of the global carbon cycle.

There is also debate about the role of water vapour. This is a much larger contributor to the “greenhouse effect” than C02; but there is uncertainty, for example, about whether increased C02 influences atmospheric levels of water vapour, or whether the effect works in reverse.

Existing climate models are based on simplified assumptions, which in some cases are highly inaccurate simplifications of the real system, thereby reducing their reliability to predict future climate.

Despite the haphazard nature of the data produced by these models, Governments in much of the developed world seem determined to commit themselves to imposing drastic changes on our energy use at massive economic cost. By doing this, they are also denying the developing world many of the benefits of industrialisation which the developed world received.

Those who believe that the present warming is part of a natural process, or that the anthropogenic contribution is minimal, argue that adaptation through improved technology is the best response. Those who believe that reducing the anthropogenic contribution will make a large difference, argue for a reduction of human-induced greenhouse gas emission, irrespective of the socio-economic costs. The borderline scientific argument for anthropogenic climate change, has been translated into a disproportionate and far-reaching network of policy decisions, which will now be examined in more depth.

From the Scientific Alliance

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