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Why wait for 2015?

October 12, 2011

London: As we hurtle towards a 4-5 degrees hotter world, with all its inherent dangers, I have taken some small consolation in the fact that action on climate change is one of the few things that the British government has cross-party agreement on. In fact, the UK has been one of the few rich-world countries to consistently call for carbon cuts and, to some extent, led the world in demand for action – although its actions have not exactly kept pace with its words. So last week, when Chancellor George Osborne announced a regressive approach – UK businesses would not be cutting their carbon emissions any faster than their counterparts in Europe – my heart sank. Instead of providing the vital assurances that clean-tech investors are desperately seeking, instead of removing some of the perceived (and, perhaps, real) risk that is crippling the low-carbon market and delaying the inevitable move to green energy, the UK government has bowed to short-termist interests.

UNFCCC head Christiana Figueres has eyes of two different colours

What a way for my elected representatives (and that of 60 million other British Earthlings) to negotiate our future at Durban this December. The international climate talks in two months’ time are supposed to achieve what the talks in Copenhagen and Cancún spectacularly failed to deliver: a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. But even the most optimistic commentators now believe this is unlikely. At best, there may be a fudge, whereby Europe and other willing joiners extend the European commitments, on the condition that – and to pave the way for – the destructive and obstinate states (US, Russia, Japan, etc) ‘agreeing to consider’ carbon commitments at a later date’. This is the outcome UNFCCC head Christiana Figueres is hoping for, and one she thinks is achievable, she told a packed meeting at Chatham House on Monday. She described, somewhat mysteriously, a mooted “letter of intent” being discussed by governments to move things forward after 2012.

Me with Figueres on Monday

Figueres was pretty much the only upbeat speaker at the 2-day meeting, though. A more commonly voiced notion is that we should wait out Durban and other impending disasters, while focusing on the tipping-point date of 2015, at which time we will finally see real change. 2015 is emerging as a key date for a few reasons: there are some big elections coming up in the US, India, Germany and the UK (and China); China (the most important nation as far as greenhouse gas emissions are concerned) will be at the end of its ambitious 5-Year Plan for decarbonising, and the beginning of a new one; clean electricity from solar PV and wind will be cost-competitive with carbon production (by 2015, installing domestic roof solar will make financial sense even without subsidies in France, Britain, Germany and other countries; it already is in Hawaii); other technologies such as second-generation biofuels (made from waste) will be mass-produced; economies will have recovered; the impact of shale gas will be clearer; a North Sea supergrid may be underway… And the impacts of climate change, which in 1980 effected less than 1% of the planet, will effect at least 15% of the planet.

James Hansen told me that the current temperature (plus the delayed warming from emitted carbon) puts us outside anything seen in the Holocene, into a different era

2015 is also the time when real deadlines for emissions reductions start whizzing past. We cannot delay the fundamental changes to energy structures, types and use for some magical date in the future. The changes we need to make need to be led from the top by incentivising change, by putting a real price on carbon and limiting pollution permits – cap and trade – which is the only proven way to get market-led change and innovation. We need proper regulatory measures in place to drive up efficiency and reduce waste through resource recycling and better design. But the people sitting around the table at Durban are not actually a bunch of faceless suits – they are us and the negotiators that (for the most part) we have elected as our servants to do our bidding. If they do not push for cleaner and more survivable future, using the tried and tested economic and regulatory mechanisms that exist for this, then it is because we have not made it sufficiently clear that this is what we want. Where is the civil society? Despite its absence from most of the media, Durban is vitally important – the changes we push for now will become the situation we work from in 2015. Climate change remains an enormous and growing threat to humans across the world.

We do not elect our businesses and industry heads in the same way that we do our governments, but we ensure their power and wealth by not pressing our governments into better regulating them, and in the choices we make as to how we spend our money. We are not ‘Consumers’, we are ‘Citizens’ in a civil society with plenty of power as to how we live, spend money and plan our futures. Instead of ‘empowering ourselves’ by wearing the latest brand name, we need to actually empower ourselves by exercising our democratic rights to a better and more equitable future. As the sadly too-short-lived Wangari Maathai knew well, power and environmental stewardship are intimately connected. There is a huge opportunity to spur investment in a new, cleaner way of doing things, by driving market forces towards the goals we want to achieve. The energy revolution – moving towards distributed production and grids, in which  the utilities become service providers not sole producers – will be as revolutionary as the move from fixed line to mobile telephony, and with the same unseen benefits and advantages. The move is inevitable, but doing it now through steady incremental change rather than unstable boom and bust, would be far less painful for business, jobs and the economy.

Incidentally, the scale of what needs to be done is also growing as the science is more finely tuned. Our proclaimed aim of 2 degrees of warming is not likely to put us in the clear, scientists are discovering – 1.5 degrees might just do it. Professor Jim Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was in London this week for a palaeoclimate meeting at the Royal Society, and he said that while the records we have for past temperature-change-impacts at the poles suggested that 2 degrees might put us in the clear, newer data for the earth’s average, shows the planet is far more sensitive to carbon than thought, and 2 degrees of warming would lead to catastrophic sea level rise if not within our lives, then for the next generation.

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