Friday, December 07, 2007

asking the wrong question

You know, that speech of Claire Fauset's from the Global Energy Summit that I quoted in the last post is brilliant and seems like it won't be appearing online anywhere. So it wants reproducing in full somewhere, and that place is here.

There's been a lot of interesting discussion today but a lot of the time we are asking the wrong questions.

We are at a time of great change. How we act now is crucial to our future. Generations before us did not know enough about climate change. Those coming after us won't be able to prevent it. So the decisions we make now as a society are critical.

Unfortunately the dominant institution of our time, the corporation, puts profits above all other concerns. If we are going to avoid dangerous climate change, we need to make decisions that aren't only in the interest of shareholders who are a tiny minority of the world's population.

As we heard from Professor Ralph Sims this morning, almost everyone is saying 2 degrees above pre industrial temperatures as the safe upper limit for increase of global average temperatures. Beyond that the biosphere becomes the largest emitter, with carbon released from decaying peat bogs and forests, ice cap melting reflecting back fewer of the suns rays and so on. Beyond two degrees we no longer have any control and become merely spectators and victims.

Given this surprising degree of unanimity, the question is surely how do we stay below a 2 degree increase? We are looking at at least a 60% cut globally in the next 20-30 years to give us a good chance. If this is going to be equitable and everyone on earth has an equal right to emit, then that means a cut in the UK of around 90%. If we aim for any less than this then all our efforts will be in vain, then we are already over the cliff. There is no point hitting emission reductions that don't meet this target.

We aren't going to achieve this simply by replacing one source of energy with another. Anyone who thinks biofuels or biomass can replace fossil fuels is seriously misunderstanding what fossil fuels are. They are millions of years of solar energy in concentrated form. The biosphere cannot possibly produce enough energy to replace fossil fuels.

Any technology that can't be developed, deployed and on stream in the 20-30 year time frame is of no use to us. The companies discussing and developing them know this and many of the proposed technologies are being used as decoys to avoid more drastic action on climate change that tackles the real issue, which is levels of consumption, and to protect the corporate licence to operate. Of course oil companies invest in biofuels. It gives them the legitimacy to keep drilling oil which we critically need to keep in the ground.

Billions of dollars and huge amounts of human time and energy are going into researching technologies that are not going to help us. We have ways of living a comfortable low carbon lifestyle with the technologies we have right now. We could use this money and energy to start that transition off today.

For Green Business, sustainability doesn't mean what the majority of people would take it to mean. Rather than meaning that we use resources in a way that doesn't impact on the ability of others to use them in the future, it means to ability to maintain profitability in a changing society.

The legal structure of corporations means that they must be committed to profit above all other concerns, even if those concerns are our survival. Given two ways to make the same money they will choose the one that means the least murder, blatant theft and environmental devastation. And then pat themselves on the back for being so responsible. But if there is any conflict between responsibility and profit, profit will win every time.

Economic growth requires the increased consumption of mostly finite resources. It is by definition unsustainable. Everything we consume takes energy to produce. It is hypocritical to talk of increasing emissions in China when a great deal of this consumption is to produce products for export to the rich West. We are essentially outsourcing our carbon emissions.

Our levels of consumption will inevitably hit crisis point, and are already doing so in many ways.

You can see this in the way that even renewable resources are running out fisheries, forests, food, fresh water. We are facing peak supply of oil and gas, and we have an enormous problem with waste, the earth can't cope with the amount of carbon dioxide we are dumping into our atmosphere not to mention landfill, nuclear waste and all the rest.

The root cause of this is excessive consumption that is necessary only to feed economic growth.

We have to talk about more than replacing energy sources and energy efficiency and talk about energy descent. We need to talk about using minimal amounts of energy. Of reducing consumption.

A green capitalist approach is asking the wrong question. Instead of saying how do we continue to grow the economy while living on the limited resources left on this planet, it should be asking – why are we putting economic growth above survival in the first place?

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