An unpalatable truth

by Sarah Barnett / 08 May, 2010
Governments and individuals seem to be doing nothing significant about climate change.

For its 40th Earth Day on April 22, British scientific journal Nature gave the planet the equivalent of one of those reality show projections that reveal what you'll look like in 20 years' time if you keep smoking, drinking and shoving empty calories into your couch-bound stomach. It wasn't pretty.

Researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research say if the greenhouse-gas emission reductions countries have pledged to make under the Copenhagen Accord are adhered to, by 2020 emissions will be 10-20% higher than what we have now.

And even if we manage to halve emissions by 2050, the authors conclude, "this will still leave the planet with, at best, a flip-of-the-coin chance of meeting the 2°C goal" for the maximum global warming.

It's possible these targets may even set us on track for 3°C or more of warming, at which point many scientists believe all bets will be off: we'll be in for runaway climate change. Happy Earth Day to us.

The Copenhagen Accord was a limp-wristed attempt to control the problem, but even so, the Nature article continues, "it is amazing how unambitious these pledges are". The European Union, ­usually seen as a world leader in its commitment to emissions reduction, has pledged only 20-30%. That's certainly bolder than New Zealand's 10-20%, but if the EU manages only 20% cuts by 2020, that will be less than it has achieved on average in the past 30 years. Everyone's going backwards - with the exception of whaling bad guys Japan and Norway, which have pledged 25% and 30-40%, respectively.

Just to keep things interesting, most countries - including New Zealand - have also added conditions to their pledges to ensure they won't have to do anything too strenuous. We'll only go for our top-end pledge of 20% if everyone else commits to really deep cuts, for instance. In other words, the failure at Copenhagen actually suited world leaders just fine, leaving them with bare-minimum commitments. No frightening the horses.

But as the authors of the Nature article put it, this projection leaves us with an additional 48 gigatonnes of emissions in the next 10 years, and that "is not on track - it is racing towards the cliff and hoping to stop just before it". A sensible person might want to frighten the horses well before they go over the edge, but then nothing about the politics of ­climate change seems sensible.

The Copenhagen Accord is not the end of it - even though it was meant to be: negotiation mandates were extended so there's still an outside chance that world leaders will find some gumption before the Mexico summit later this year.

Andy Reisinger, of Victoria University's New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute, notes that reality and political action are only getting further apart: "We are no longer gambling the future of the planet - if we stick with current emissions targets, we are folding our cards entirely and leaving it to our kids to pay our accumulated debts."

Satirical news website the Onion marked April 22 by exhorting, "This Earth Day, do your inconsequential part for the environment." In the face of spectacular international failure, cutting personal emissions really does feel trifling, like your own 2c on a multibillion-dollar debt. Yet just as Nature's projections make the situation look unsalvageable, studies of personal action are beginning to show the significant impact lifestyle choices can have.

The US Natural Resource Defense Council recently found that simple personal actions by Americans - all of which either cost nothing or save money - could reduce US emissions by 15%.

And it's no wonder: although many people point to overpopulation burdening the planet as a main cause of climate change, the reality is that in the developed world, populations are plateauing or declining. The developing world may be growing, but its emissions on a per-capita basis are as nothing. The unpalatable truth is that reducing consumption in the developed world is going to have a far faster impact than slowing population growth elsewhere.

The even more unpalatable truth is that world leaders aren't buying it.

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