Nero’s breakfast?

Posted on January 1, 2011 by

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It’s a year after the 15th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (COP15), and the appropriately named COP16 is also now over. Unfortunately we still don’t have the much-hankered-after binding agreement. In the absence of more informed and informative comment, I’ll have a go at sharing with you my take on a few things climatic. Being my opinion, my words shall likely be hideously biased. I’d thus very much like to hear from you, dear readers, about your thoughts on the topic.

Is it real?

Surely climate change is an over exaggeration? Surely it’s a media-driven fuss? Well, think what you like, but I reckon whatever you think, major climatic change will happen. Well people have done an excellent job of killing things throughout history [1], so it’s not all that surprising. And we’ve increased the concentration of an atmospheric greenhouse gas from 270ppm to 380ppm in 150 years [1]. That’s like hundreds of volcanoes erupted. Last time that happened, there was massive global warming. This is not about ideology. This is about gas concentrations.

Fiddling while Earth burns?

In my opinion, COP16 is along the right lines. This may sound boring, but I think what is needed is indeed, at least to some extent, top-down changes. However, the very thing which makes the United Nations (UN) such a good idea when it comes to solving international disputes – its universality – means that when it comes to CO2, nothing can ever be agreed on. This, along with regulatory lethargy at home, drives us to think what we as individuals can do, outside the governmental framework. We try to reduce our emissions with our diet [2]. We try to drive less. Maybe turn out the light, or even turn off the computer now and then. However, I fear we’re missing the all-too-big elephant in the corner. Here’s a graph from the UK government Department of Energy and Climate Change [3]:

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As you can see, energy for businesses and homes, and transport are the big ones. How do we avoid these outputs? Most domestic energy is on heating our rooms and our water [4], and we can’t all freeze can we? Equally, most of us more-or-less have to use powered transport at some point, and businesses often really have to. If heating and transport are powered by fossil fuels, putting the monitor on sleep is like if you try and save money by buying cheaper toothpaste when you’re paying far above average rent.

Nuclear?

Sweden and France have some of the lowest CO2 emissions per capita of Western nations [5]. This is fundamentally because of hydro and nuclear power in the Sweden, and just nuclear in France. Nuclear power has huge downsides. Chernobyl-style explosions are very rare and the amount of harm caused debatable. However, a lot of energy is needed to extract uranium, and a lot of faffing to deal with it after use. However, it remains a sure-fire way of massively slashing emissions. Renewable fuels are certainly possible, especially in a country with lots of water like Sweden, but wave, wind and other renewables are not so well developed. I think we should aim to encourage both, with an eye to eventual nuclear phaseout. Currently most governments want a mixture of sources including fossil fuels. How about we whack in nuclear instead of all the fossil fuels, but keep the expansion of renewables as planned (if not greater than planned)? There are many objections to nuclear – it is indeed not truly sustainable [6], and the French situation is not ideal as renewables are sidelined and planning has been rather technocratic [7] – but in the short-term it could really help.

New houses?

Heating is the big energy-user. Building houses properly can, even in cold countries, massively reduce the amount of energy needed however. Stipulating Passivhaus [8] (meaning “passive house” you’ll be surprised to learn) and other energy efficient standards would make a great difference. Old buildings can also be improved greatly by insulation. However, this needs laws and potentially financial incentives otherwise people simply won’t do it as it’s too expensive.

Taxes?

Sweden again. Yes, it already has a carbon tax. However it hasn’t reduced transport emissions, though it has done for district heating [9]. Taxation of emissions presents an appealing way of encouraging development of alternative technologies however. Ideally taxes would be at the level of the marginal cost of carbon to society, preferably with a very low discount rate, as used in the Stern Review [10].

Trains? Biofuel?

The other major source of emissions is transport. This is less easily solved. The most promising way looks like a combination of electric ground transport and biofuels for aeroplanes. Unfortunately biofuels are not that well developed and have downsides such as impacting food prices [11] and potentially habitat destruction as large areas are needed to grow them. However, if we whacked in electric cars for local and trains for longer distance transport, and did the above with power generation, we might have breathing space to run planes on oil for a bit, and ultimately might not need to turn every field over to biofuel production.

Why haven’t we done this?

It’s expensive, and it is in everyone’s interest, but no individual’s interest. It is a typical example of tragedy of the commons and an underprovided public good. It’s also because of that ol’ social discount rate: global warming’s not going to affect me right – I’ll be long dead – so why should I bother? It is also I fear, despite the Stern report, partly because it’s not going to cause the worst of its problems for those in richer countries, and indeed for people at all. The tropical forests may die, the islanders may flee, but those in northern Europe and northern North America will probably be alright. Swedish grapes anyone? However many places and things even those up here in the north care about will be affected. The Mediterranean may well become a desert, the Maldives will sink, and all those conservation causes we care about will very likely be to no avail without something being done.

Are these top-down techno fixes?

Yes. They are. And I personally think that they’re needed. A few committed people might insulate their house if they’re not forced to, but many simply can’t afford it or won’t do it. Equally businesses cannot send things by train rather than lorry if it’s far more expensive and their competitors don’t. I also think that there is no way people at large will accept a noticeably reduced standard of living or even a markedly changed lifestyle until it’s far too late. I’m not talking about whether or not they buy a TV or a Jaguar. I’m talking about whether people will take cold showers, wear four jumpers, and not go and see aunty Mavis at Christmas. Indeed I fear that the emphasis on lifestyle changes may even harm the cause. People don’t want to think about global warming because they feel guilty and associate it with treehuggers. I think global warming is far too serious a threat to all the glorious life of this planet to be idealistic about it. What we need is to slash emissions. Now.

Advice?

Well, by all means don’t drink milk. But whilst eating your watery cereal, write a letter to the government and tell them what you think. Talk to anyone you know with regulatory power: planners, local government. They have thick skulls and skins, so do it more than once. You could even stand for election if you like, or join a pressure group. Also, get informed. Read well-researched articles and come to understand the best, most practicable options we have. Don’t listen to what your friend said, what aunty Mavis said, or what a non-expert journalist said. Once you think you know a bit, tell others. But don’t tell them to wear an extra jumper. It will turn them off solving the problem. Tackling global warming is not a moral issue. It does not require sacrifices. No pain, plenty of gain.

Agree?

Didn’t agree with something I said. Please comment away.

References

[1] Steffen, W. et al. (2007) The Anthropocene: Are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature. AMBIO 36, 614-621

[2] I even weaned myself off milk with my cereal. Unfortunately I went back to having cheese with my pasta!

[3http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/statistics/climate_change/1_20100414165435_e_@@_ghgnatstatsrelease140410rev1.pdf

[4] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file11250.pdf

[5]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions_per_capita

[6] Verbruggen, A. (2008) Renewable and nuclear power: A common future? Energy Policy 36, 4036-4047

[7] Coombs, C. (2010) French Nuclear Power: A Model for the World? Hinckley Journal of Politics 11, 7-13

[8] http://www.passivhaus.org.uk/

[9] Bohlin, F. (1998) The Swedish carbon dioxide tax: effects on biofuel use and carbon dioxide emissions. Biomass and Bioenergy 15, 283-291

[10] http://www.equalities.gov.uk/stern_review.aspx

[11] Hill, J. et al. (2006) Environmental, economic and energetic costs and benefits of biodiesel and ethanol biofuels. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States 30, 11206-11210

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