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My Big Five suggestions to save the planet
[June 21, 2007]

My Big Five suggestions to save the planet

(The Herald Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) THE Chinese have a saying: "Crisis means change." Let's pray they're right. On Tuesday six US leading scientists chose the kind of charged vocabulary once associated with grubby tree-hugging eco-campaigners to deliver an unambiguous message about global warming. "The Earth is getting perilously close to climate changes that could run out of control, " said James Hansen, director of Nasa's Goddard Institute. Wiggle room on effective action is no more than 10 years, he reckons.

How does this square with yesterday's news from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency that China is now building not one but two coal-fired power stations a week and has overtaken the US as the world's biggest polluter, with carbon emissions set to rise by a further 10-per cent this year?

The worst sort of inaction in the face of impending disaster is to do nothing because you don't believe individuals can make a difference. I've vaguely thought of myself as green since long before it was remotely fashionable. (Thirty years ago, supermarket checkout staff treated me like a quaint simpleton when I turned up with my own shopping bags. Friends smiled indulgently as they politely refused my offers of home-made compost. ) But in the past few months I've been thinking about how to achieve what politicians like to call "a step change" from low-energy light bulbs to a low-energy life. As a scribbler, the least I can do is share a few thoughts. So yesterday morning I gave myself 10 minutes to come up with five big ideas to save the planet. A back-of-the-envelope exercise, literally. Here they are:

1. Upstage the politicians. The absurd pinhead-dancing exercises witnessed at the G8 leaders'meeting in Heiligendamm and the UN talks in Nairobi merely confirmed what we know already: that global political structures cannot deliver enough change fast enough. Even if George Bush has been shamed into paying lip service to multilateral action under the UN, the fact remains that currently neither the US nor China - the world's two biggest emitters, who belched out 12bn tonnes of carbon dioxide between them in 2006 - will accept binding targets. What's worse, both are still quibbling about whether global temperature rises of more than 2 oCare anything worse than a mixed blessing. The UKLabour government, which depicts itself as on the side of the angels, has yet to walk its talk. No wonder the political parties are haemorrhaging members.

But it's not the whole story. If there is hope, it has to be in the rise and rise of bodies such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF. Add to that the power of the internet to create and empower global networks of like-minded individuals. Combine the two in campaigns like FoE's Big Ask on the issue of binding targets for cutting emissions and we're starting to see environmentally-aware individuals forcing the pace of change. Witness the Scottish Climate Bill, due out today, which, thanks to this campaign, includes the very 3-per cent annual target that the Blair government is resisting. The next step is to get shipping and aviation emissions included.

2. Get smart about the science. A lot of inertia on climate change comes down to basic ignorance about the science, aggravated by decades in which certain industries and their tame politicians have exploited that ignorance to spread misinformation.

Those of us who last handled a science textbook 40 years ago struggle to grasp concepts like the double whammy of "the albedo flip". Basically, that's when sunlight that was once reflected back into space by white ice is absorbed when it melts, creating a scary self-reinforcing loop, melting more ice faster. That's why we need more politicians with science backgrounds and why those who say a few degrees centigrade here or there is nothing to worry about need to get back to school. Only by putting science at the centre of the curriculum, alongside maths and English, can we hope to create a generation who understand the desperate urgency of the planet's plight. Meanwhile, for people such as me, encountering Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, has been a true Road to Damascus moment. Speaking of Al Gore . . .

3. Al Gore for President. Gore has done more than anyone to get climate change up the political agenda but that in itself is a limited achievement because once it gets there it becomes one issue among many. Incisive change is invariably neutered by other considerations: jobs, the economy, the motoring lobby, foreign allies etc. A few daft Channel 4 documentaries aside, Gore has won the argument. Now the issue is turning words to action. He is perhaps the only man with the profile and organisation behind him to make climate change THE issue driving global politics. We need him in the Oval Office, not preaching to the converted in some lecture theatre.

4. Boycott Chinese goods. This one won't be popular for a number of reasons. Even the guy from FoE baulked at it, rushing to remind me of what a teeny-weeny carbon footprint the average Chinese person has compared with an American, or even me. I don't buy the argument that the Chinese can pollute their way to prosperity because the west did. The essential difference, of course, is that until recently we didn't know it was wrong. If the tipping point on climate change is as imminent as Hansen and even the more moderate Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest then it is global suicide to allow developing countries to carry on as if nothing was wrong, undermining any sacrifice we might make. So yes, we need to set a good example because China certainly won't follow a different energy trajectory unless we do. And yes, we need to share clean coal and any other green technology we come up with and help them lift their poorest people out of poverty. But the real problem is that we have basically outsourced our filthy manufacturing to them. The best and quickest way for us to reduce Chinese carbon dioxide emissions is to stop buying what they make. That also tackles the issues of air miles and the west's shocking overconsumption. It would have the useful side-effect of breaking the link between pollution and prosperity.

5. Get scrubbing. The problem about technological solutions to environmental problems is that they risk creating an excuse for continuing to do the wrong thing. But, given the pace of action to date on climate change, we'd be nuts to rely on politicians doing the right thing. That's why it's infuriating that AlistairDarling didn't see his way to biting the hand off BPwhen it offered to mount a carbon capture pilot project at Peterhead. It may not be enough merely to scrub emissions from existing power stations. Klaus Lackner of Columbia University proposes extending this technology to sucking carbon dioxide out of the air with windmill-type structures fitted with scrubbers that could be placed anywhere on land or sea. That may be the only sort of technology that could reduce carbon dioxide levels to pre-industrial levels.

Anyone who thinks that global warming won't deliver something between nasty and cataclysmic either doesn't understand the science or hasn't been paying attention. Feel free to scoff at my Big Five, but only if you can come up with a better set. Just remember to recycle the envelope afterwards.

Copyright 2007 Newsquest Media Group Ltd, Source: The Financial Times Limited

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