Living beyond the planet’s limits

Mayer Hillman
27 April 2005

A primary lesson that the world’s people failed to learn during the 20th century must be learned in the 21st century: that economic growth, as pursued in all countries around the world, cannot be maintained. The planet has a fixed capacity to absorb the greenhouse gases that are too closely associated with that growth, and the damaging consequences of ignoring this fact are already evident. Prospects are grim indeed unless the energy-profligate lifestyles that represent one of the primary components of growth are drastically curbed.

We are truly at a defining moment in history.

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This fixed capacity makes it essential that we no longer gloss over the issue of fairness as we have done in the past – outrageously fobbing off those complaining about the size of their slice of cake on the grounds that, with the larger cake that growth will assuredly deliver, they will have more to eat. That line of argument cannot be deployed any more: we now know that if some have more than their fair share, others inevitably must have less. Successive governments have not acknowledged the enormity of the essential changes that have to be made in light of this simple and obvious equation.

From this perspective, and on moral and political grounds alike, there is only one type of policy with any prospect of delivering the degree of reduction in carbon emissions required to avoid serious destabilisation of the planet’s climate: one based on the emissions’ fair allocation.

How well do governments in countries responsible for the largest emissions, those in the rich western world, respond to this challenge? The equitable figure for the populations of affluent countries such as Britain is a reduction in emissions into the atmosphere of over 90% by 2050, but Tony Blair’s government has pledged a target of only 60% – even though the targets determined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were global ones. This crucial consideration is often ignored.

Moreover, the 2050 target presupposes without evidence that feedback mechanisms will before that date be stalled or reversed: for example, higher temperatures melting the tundra in northern latitudes, releasing vast quantities of methane (a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide), in the process accelerating global warming beyond human control. Indeed, there is fairly compelling evidence that this is occurring now.

Likewise, the ceiling of 550ppm (parts per million) set for this concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere presupposes that a “no-regrets” limit (at present about 380ppm — a level which is already the source of serious climatic changes) will not be exceeded. As seems likely in view of the urgency with which action needs to be taken, an annual reduction of 10% over the next twenty-five years is required to achieve the 90% decrease.

A cause for very real concern, therefore, is the underlying continuing promotion of energy-intensive activities. In Britain, the annual distances travelled by each person in the last fifty years have increased six-fold; within the next twenty years, mileage by air alone is forecast to exceed current mileage by road and rail combined. In other parts of the developed world, such as north America, the situation is far worse.

The fact that we continue with these totally unsustainable lifestyles reflects a widespread collective amnesia and near-universal state of denial about the compelling significance of climate change. These attitudes help to fuel eight fallacious, interlocked assumptions about what could be done to prevent severely damaging outcomes from climate change.

These include:

  • the primary route to raising the quality of life is by improving our material circumstances
  • there are no limits to this process – provided it is done “sustainably”
  • economic growth can be decoupled sufficiently from energy use to prevent carbon emissions leading to climatic catastrophes
  • market forces combined with proper pricing are the best way of achieving this
  • technology can provide the answers to any difficulties that may arise in implementing the strategy
  • the aim of policy can continue to be widening public choice, for example enabling “further and faster” travel by road, rail and air — with restriction solely limited to what can be reasonably afforded to provide local, or at best, national protection of the environment
  • public transport, with greater public investment, can be relied upon as the panacea for the “transport ills” caused by too great a demand for private transport
  • greater energy efficiency, an accelerated programme of transfer from the use of fossil fuels to energy renewables and the sequestration of carbon dioxide will prove sufficient to enable avoidance of any major modifications to our preferred lifestyles.

Belief that such an ill-founded strategy will prove adequate is very attractive. It suits politicians who wish to impress on the electorate the view that they have matters well in hand; it appeals to industry, the viability of which is very dependent on a “business as usual” growth scenario; and it feeds most people’s strong wish not to be denied ever-widening choice and improved circumstances to the point that these are almost seen as an inalienable right.

No time to lose

A very different framework to combat climate change – and in my view the only solution that has both moral justification and the political prospect of broad intergovernmental agreement – has been developed by the Global Commons Institute (GCI). It is called “contraction & convergence”, and involves steadily reducing global carbon dioxide emissions from the annual average per person (in Britain, currently close to 10 tons) towards identical emissions across the world’s population of less than 1.5 tons.

Translated to the personal and household level, contraction & convergence will take the form of a carbon ration equivalent to a new currency tradable on the “white market”. In the early years of its introduction, relatively wealthy people may be able to buy the surplus from those who lead energy-thrifty lifestyles. In this respect, it will represent a “win-win” situation, progressively redistributing income and rewarding “conservers” – those who are imposing the least environmental burden. But the cost of buying any surplus will steadily rise as the ration is progressively ratcheted down from year to year.

Insofar as so much activity is locked into too high use of fossil fuels, it is very clear that such a radical change in our choices and therefore in our personal behaviour will pose substantial difficulties, in the first instance for politicians who are motivated by fear of the electoral consequences of prescribing what appear at first sight to be unattractive policies. The strategy poses problems too for other decision-makers, for instance in industry where the future is predicated on a continuation of past growth trends.

Finally, it is unlikely to be welcomed by an uninformed public. It is for this essential reason that education has a primary role in the process of the electorate coming to understand that we have no right to constrain the choices of future generations nor to burden them with the costs of coping with the likely horrendous damage that our self-indulgent preferences will have brought on them. Only in this way will it be possible for the difficult transition to very different lifestyles to be made without considerable public opposition.

Indeed, politicians, industry and the public alike must learn very quickly that all proposals for the future that are not founded on very low energy use are no longer realistic options — for example, the growth rather than the decline of international tourism and, with it, the need for airport capacity, the staging of the 2012 Olympics in London, or indeed anywhere. Widespread ignorance on this score cannot be allowed to stand in the way of responsible decision-making. There is an obvious and urgent need for as consensual a degree of support as is possible for this approach from all the political parties because it is the only fair solution. Hoping to “muddle through” without an overall and binding framework for decisions would clearly be doomed.

The longer the delay in acting, the more severe will be the task of limiting the consequent damage. If the public, politicians and industry are not persuaded to support the concept of rationing and to end continuing procrastination on the subject of global warming, the result will be one of two outcomes: an intensification of climate-change-induced problems, or the operation of market forces that prevent much of the world (especially the populations of developing countries) from being able to afford the energy essential to their basic standard of living. We must face the reality that there is no escape-route that will allow us to continue with our current lifestyles.

Mayer Hillman is a fellow at the Policy Studies Institute. His latest book is How We Can Save The Planet (Penguin, 2004)

An illuminating profile of Mayer Hillman, by Anne Karpf, is here

It is all too apparent that a voluntary approach could only succeed if the great majority of the population of developed and developing countries were prepared to join in a collective act of responsible world citizenship. This expectation is wholly unrealistic and, in any case, “freeriders” would have far too much to gain.

This is why some inter-governmental coalitions must take the lead in international negotiations for the urgent adoption of the contraction and convergence framework and for the early introduction of equal per capita carbon rationing. One such opportunity arises during Britain’s presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2005, when Tony Blair – perhaps acting in collaboration with African states, as proposed in the Chanctonbury Initiative – may be able to bring together EU member-states behind these efforts.

Future generations will justifiably sit in judgment on what we chose to do in the early part of this century in full knowledge – as accessories before the fact – of the devastating consequences of continuing with our energy-profligate lifestyles. The accumulation of evidence on climate change and its damaging impacts make it progressively unacceptable that in the years ahead we attempt to plead ignorance with the excuse “we did not know”.

This article appears as part of openDemocracy‘s online debate on the politics of climate change. The debate was developed in partnership with the British Council as part of their ZeroCarbonCity initiative – a two year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change.

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