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2011 – The Year of Failures

Kyoto’s promise was to to keep the earth’s temperature at a liveable level for our species. Now some 15 years later, the Durban pledge contains less than half of the needed emission cuts to accomplish that goal.

The Durban talks occurred against the backdrop of  a record breaking jump in carbon emissions in 2010 – 5.9% increase after a drop of 1.4% in 2009 as a result of the recession. This adds half a billion extra tons of carbon into the atmosphere as reported by the Global Carbon Project. A dangerous feedback loop – already in motion –  includes melting permafrost that releases methane, a greenhouse gas 20-60 times more potent than carbon dioxide and releases of hydrate gas trapped in ocean depths for millions of years.

Patrick Bond of Triple Crisis, relates how the phrase “spoiled moral environment”, used by the late Vaclav Havel (last President of Czechoslovakia in 1989-1992) about Soviet-era politics,  describes aptly those who departed Durban seemingly pleased to declare progress as they did in Copenhagen talks two years ago. Yet they have little to show for their work. The UN climate change meeting ended with a vague agreement to “try to agree” on a new treaty limiting carbon emissions, to take effect in 2020. They should be hanging their heads in shame.

Time is running out to find an approach that works. By 2020, it will be too late to prevent a temperature rise of more than 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-Industrial Revolution levels – the threshold for dangerous runaway climate change. Our civilization is in jeopardy. We must find a new path for survival. This is why we need a Plan B – Geoengineering, Energy Conservation, Limiting Economic Growth and Mitigating Population Growth.


In his feature article, John Vital, Environment Editor for The Guardian, outlines how scientists argue  that a “plan B” for climate change will be needed if the UN and politicians cannot agree to making the necessary cuts in greenhouse gases.

These scientists are lobbying governments and international agencies to back experiments into manipulating the climate on a global scale to avoid catastrophic climate change. Many are supported financially by billionaires such as  Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson. The erroneous thinking that there is a quick technological fix to every problem is creating pressure on governments to support large-scale research in this field.

The hope is to “buy time” with transitional measures to control climate change as we wait for the next wave of new energy sources. Some climate scientists believe geoengineering techniques may provide short-term relief from the disastrous effects of mounting emissions, whereas environmentalists oppose the new technology on the grounds that it could “irrevocably alter rainfall patterns and further interfere with the planet’s climate” reports John Vital.

Geoengineering is highly controversial even though it is only at the conceptual stage. Geoengineering projects are designed to tackle the effects of climate change  directly, usually by removing CO2 from the air or limiting the amount of sunlight reaching the planet’s surface – solar radiation management, weather modification, ocean fertilization, artificial volcanoes, cloud whitening.

Mike Nickerson of Sustain Well-being (website devoted to developing a sustainable future) sees it this way “Industrial scale intervention in the atmosphere to correct problems from industrial scale intervention in the atmosphere.”

There is increasing concern about the ethics of geoengineering research and its funding. What is surfacing is a highly complex web of interconnected financial interests, research grants, patent registrations, undisclosed donations, payments for self-serving reports, and the like.

Diana Bronson

“There are clear conflicts of interest between many of the people involved in the debate,” said Diana Bronson, a researcher with Montreal-based geoengineering watchdog ETC, speaking at the Copenhagen conference in 2010. “What is really worrying is that the same small group working on high-risk technologies that will geoengineer the planet is also trying to engineer the discussion around international rules and regulations. We cannot put the fox in charge of the chicken coop.”

A 2009 report – Searching for a Miracle – Net Energy Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society (written by Richard Heinberg and published by two California based think tanks: the International Forum on Globalization and the Post Carbon Institute) premises that the world’s energy use will need a radical change in the next decades.

The report analyses 18 different sources of energy presently available on the market and points out that we will have to make do with the solutions we already have at hand. It will take less time to solve the problematic issues of existing technologies than it will to develop entirely new energy solutions which may never deliver at all.

Heinberg sees energy conservation, mitigating population growth, and limiting economic growth as indispensable if we are to develop a sustainable energy economy.

Energy Conservation

The construction of highly efficient rail-based transit systems, the retrofit of building stocks for maximum energy efficiency, the internalisation of the full costs of energy to reflect its true price, all of these are needed to move forward on a large scale in energy conservation

We will never succeed in conserving massive amounts of energy simply by using energy-efficient light bulbs, driving smaller cars and observing Earth Day. We need to tackle energy inefficiency to attain serious conservation goals.

Approximately two-thirds of the fuel burned to generate electricity is lost in the generation and delivery process. Or, to put it another way, our electric power system operates at approximately 33 percent efficiency. The amount of electricity lost over power lines has doubled between 1980 and 2006 placing in essence a $12 billion “tax” on electricity that consumers now pay – Galvin Electricity Initiative.

The plain truth is that the United States is an inefficient user of energy. For each dollar of economic product, the United States spews more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than 93 of 137 countries tracked in the indicators of the International Energy Agency. Those doing better include not only cutting-edge nations like Japan but low-tech countries like Thailand and Mexico. (NYT Editorial, January, 2009)

Mitigation of population growth

World Population Hits 7 billion
World Population will hit 9b in 2050

Mitigation of population growth is warranted because our planet cannot support a world population that is growing at the rate of 200,000 people per day (70 million per year). Action is urgently needed  to slow this increase with programs designed to give every woman control over her fertility as well as explaining clearly the implications of unrestricted population increases. Humanity is already caught in a vicious circle of rising population chasing scarcer and scarcer resources.

In an article reported by Reuters (May 2.2012), Laurie Goring identifies many new initiatives and innovations that will be required to feed a skyrocketing world population:

By 2050, the planet will need at least 70 percent more food than it does today to meet both an expected rise in population to 9 billion from 7 billion and changing appetites as many poor people grow richer, experts say.

Limiting Economic Growth

We have many problems but apparently only one solution – Economic Growth. In the past, it’s been possible to grow ourselves out of recessions and economic downturns but such is no longer the case in the world of 2012.

 A global economic model that is based on the belief that nature is limitless, that we will always be able to find more of what we need and that we can endlessly extract non-renewable resources, is seriously flawed and not sustainable.

Should we not be measuring the toxic effects of on-going growth? When the expansion of a country’s economy increases social and environmental costs faster than benefits to society, is it not time to drop the GDP as a measure of performance?

In order to tackle these difficult issues, a broad coalition of world leaders – politicians, economists, religious leaders, scientists – will be required.  We will need inspiring leadership. That was the promise of the 2008 election of President Barack Obama. But now the Audacity of Hope has turned into the Hope for Audacity.

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