In an interview broadcast on TVNZ’s One News a couple of days ago, the renowned naturalist David Attenborough was asked about the politics of climate change. He answered by remarking that when he started making tv programmes, the global human population was only one-third what it is now. The clear suggestion is that the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is caused by the growth in numbers of humans.
On the One News report, as usual, the Overseas Expert’s viewpoint went entirely unquestioned; to the casual observer it would seem the issue is simple and clearly understood. And so it follows that the solution to climate change is population reduction.
This idea could not be more wrong.
George Monbiot’s book Heat (reviewed here) includes a brief discussion on the difference between efficiency and reduction. Given that eco-efficiency is one of the buzzwords of sustainability, I want to highlight his discussion, as it seems to me to be very important for greens to be aware of the problem he outlines.
Monbiot notes that if a new consumer gadget or a new industrial production process or a refitted home uses 30% less energy than previously, then we might assume that 30% of the previous energy consumption has been saved. Unfortunately, due to some very inconvenient side-effects of eco-efficiency, this is not necessarily the case.
In his book Heat, George Monbiot looks at the possibility of a climate change catastrophe. He argues that a 2°C rise in global average temperature would precipitate such a disaster, as it would cause many ecosystems to begin to collapse. They would become CO2 emitters rather than the CO2 sinks that they are at present, and runaway global warming would follow, regardless of what we humans might do.
In order to be sure of avoiding that scenario, Monbiot estimates that humanity must achieve a 90% reduction in its CO2 output by 2030. Is it at all possible? In his book, Monbiot attempts to show that it is.
This is a general election year here in Aotearoa New Zealand and the election will hold the much of the attention of New Zealand’s political junkies. In some respects, though, even for New Zealanders the US presidential election taking place in November is of far more consequence.
I’m thinking in particular of the issue of global warming. Because the US generates around 22% of global CO2 output (2004 data, available here), the decisions of the next US president will – in one way or another – have a critical impact on the issue of climate change. Whether he or she takes action on global warming or follows the lead of GW Bush and places her or his head firmly in the sand, the outcome will affect just about everyone on the planet.