The much-respected Washington DC-based Worldwatch Institute has just published The State of the World 2009, the 26th edition of its annual status report into the planet's environmental health. You won't be surprised to hear that the prognosis isn't exactly rosy. In fact, having pored over the institute's previous reports in recent years, I was a little shocked to see just how bleak the institute now sees it.
The report's focus this year is envisioning how climate change will pan out over the coming century. One of the most arresting discussions within the report is the chapter written by Dr Bill Hare, a scientist based at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, entitled 'A Safe Landing for the Climate'. Hare argues that, in effect, we will have to achieve negative carbon emissions - "neg-emissions", if you like - by 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change:
"Returning to warming levels significantly below 2 degrees Celsius implies the need for large long-term extraction of CO2 from the air and the storage of the captured carbon in secure underground reservoirs, which will need to be watched and managed over many centuries, perhaps millennia. Extracting CO2 from the air appears to be a necessity that must be confronted within the next 50 years."
Reading this on the day that the green (ha!) light is being given by the UK government to the third runway at Heathrow airport and you realise just how fast the gap is growing between what the science is saying and what the reality on the ground (and in the air) appears to be. Let's be honest, as things stand today, we haven't got a cat's chance of answering the increasingly despairing cries of the scientific community charged with the heavy responsibility of mapping out the implications of fast-rising levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gases.
The Worldwatch Institute does, at least, have a stab at spelling out what our species needs to do by setting out its "10 key challenges to avoiding catastrophic climate change":
1) Thinking long-term At the core of the climate problem is the likelihood that future generations will pay with a deteriorating global environment for the refusal of current generations to live in balance with the atmosphere. Visionary leaders will need to marshal the public to take responsibility for the impacts of today's behaviour on the future and to act accordingly.
2) Innovation. The emissions shift will require technologies that break the carbon link to energy consumption with as little sacrifice of price and convenience as possible. A range of renewable technologies can produce electricity and meet heating and cooling needs. Such technologies include buildings that produce more energy than they consume and "smart grids" that use information technology to match renewably produced electricity precisely to demand.
3) Population Rarely addressed in the context of climate change, future population trends could make the difference between success and failure in the long-term balance of human activities, atmosphere, and climate. The world's population is likely to stop growing and then gradually decline for a period when women gain the full capacity to decide for themselves whether and when to have children.
4) Changing lifestyles: The assumption that the "good life" requires ever more individual consumption, more meat-eating, ever larger homes and vehicles, and disposable everything will need to fade. A spirit of shared and equitable material sacrifice can replace it - with no loss of what really matters, such as active good health, strong communities, and time with family.
5) Healing land: Managed for the task, the Earth's soil and vegetation can remove billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Agricultural landscapes can accomplish this while improving food and fibre production and minimising the need for artificial fertiliser and fossil-fuel-driven tilling and raising farmer incomes.
6) Strong institutions: As with the deteriorating global economy, the global nature of climate change demands international cooperation and sound governance. The strength and effectiveness of the United Nations, multilateral banks, and major national governments are essential to addressing global climate change. These institutions - and those emerging from the hoped-for Copenhagen climate agreement in 2009 - require strong public support for their critical work.
7) The Equity imperative: No climate agreement will succeed without support from those countries that have so far contributed little to human-induced climate change, have low per-capita emissions, and stand to face the biggest challenges in adapting to the coming changes. A pact that is fair to developing and industrialised countries alike is essential.
8) Economic stability: With the world now fixated on the sputtering global economy, addressing climate change will demand attention to costs and the promise of improving rather than undermining long-term economic prospects. A climate agreement will have to operate effectively during anaemic as well as booming economic periods, facing squarely the challenges of poverty and unemployment while continually reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
9) Political stability: A world beset by conflict and terrorism is far less likely to prevent dangerous climate disruption than one at peace. Security and climate must be addressed simultaneously. On the positive side, negotiating an effective and fair climate agreement offers countries a needed opportunity to practice peace and re-frame international relations along cooperative rather than competitive lines.
10) Mobilising for change: The way to deal with climate change we ourselves are causing is to see the opportunity for a new global economy and new ways of living in the effort to bring net greenhouse gas emissions to an end. There's no guarantee such a transition will be easy - or even possible. But a global movement to make the effort is needed now, and could yield new jobs, new opportunities for peace, and global cooperation beyond what humanity has ever achieved.
All good sensible stuff, in my view, if a little heavy on the idealism and light on the detail about how any of this can actually be implemented effectively. But has it missed anything out? Should any of these be prioritised over others? Do you have more hope, perhaps, and believe we can reach a state of "neg-emissions" by 2050?
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017