What's to be done about climate change?
Readers may wonder what sort of response I've had to these articles on
the inter-dependent changes, both local and global, that will affect our
lives. My postbag is divided evenly between those who are sceptical of
climate change or even the imminent exhaustion of fossil fuel supplies,
those who are quietly getting on with modifying their lifestyle and
"spreading the word" on climate change, and those who ask me what I want
them to do about it.
I would like to thank all three of those readers for taking the trouble
to reply! But why only three - out of a membership of over 1200, whom I
would have expected to be the 1% or so of people who most care about
their town? Then again, I might have struggled with the deluge if you
had all replied, and maybe those three are all that I need to make the
argument for sustainability, quite independently of climate change, by
raising the following two questions.
Why do we need sustainability?
It's obvious really: if we live unsustainably, life will not be
sustained. If my first correspondent prompts the question, "Why is our
present lifestyle not sustainable?", my answer is as follows. The earth
is estimated to have existed for 4.5 billion years, and its environment
has eventually evolved into a sufficiently favourable and steady state
for complex life to evolve. Many factors are involved, but crucially we
would not be here now had it not been for early plant life slowly
removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and instead
enriching it with oxygen. Much of the absorbed carbon became buried as
organic material which decomposed into coal, oil, and gas.
About 150,000 years ago, homo sapiens appeared, beginning the evolution
of the wide variety of culture, civilisation, and technology that
defines modern life. Many a worthy TV series has been devoted to the
various aspects of this story, but for how long will it continue? Over
the last century or so, man has exploited the energy stored in fossil
fuels on a massive scale, apparently overturning the disastrous
consequences of over-population predicted two centuries ago by Thomas
Malthus, freeing much of the developed world from the tyranny of hard
physical labour, and globalising the benefits of culture, civilisation,
and technology. Who in their right mind would possibly want to undo all
that is good in that?
Therein lies the paradox. On the one hand, it seems to me that the
early environmentalists were seen as precisely some sort of killjoy,
denying humanity the benefits offered by the earth's resources, and
urging restraint "for the sake of the planet". But actually, the planet
doesn't need us, it is we who depend on it, and it will still be here
long after we are gone, still revolving about the sun with the moon in
tow, possibly for another four or five billion years before the sun's
nuclear energy is exhausted. On that time-scale, even solar power is
More immediately for us, however, Malthus's predicted apocalypse may
merely have been postponed. For the other side of the paradox says that
by burning fossil fuels on this massive scale for mere decades, we have
unwittingly undone the work of millions of years by the early plant life
that made conditions suitable for our own evolution. The environmental
impact of greenhouse gases (GHGs) has long been predicted but is
unfortunately slow to accumulate: climate change due to global warming
has taken decades to become apparent beyond reasonable doubt, and will
continue for decades to come, from the GHGs we have already emitted.
This is the broad conclusion from over 600 scientists in the 4th
Assessment Review of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change,
based on wide-ranging and increasingly abundant evidence gathered over
several decades (the IPCC was formed in 1989 when the case for
investigating climate change was already substantial). Unless we begin
immediately to make drastic cuts in GHG emissions, the human race risks
a man-made climate catastrophe, which may take decades more to emerge
fully with its attendant risks for mankind's survival, yet we have only
the next few years in which to arrest the emissions that are causing it.
One way or another, our GHG emissions cannot be sustained. We don't
have processes to re-absorb them from the atmosphere at the rate that we
currently emit them, and it is not we in the developed world who will be
predominantly the first to pay the price. But it is we who have the
choice: "Do we simply let nature take its course (for the outcome will
be natural, what ever it may be); or do we try to do something about it
in the few remaining years when that will be possible?" Even if you
remain unconvinced by climate change, the argument for sustainability
applies equally to the exhaustion of the finite resources which we are
consuming at an ever-increasing rate, and to the ability of the earth to
feed a population which demands an ever-increasing level of nutrition.
We are drawn inexorably back to Malthus's assertion that populations
have a natural tendency to grow faster than the means of subsistence,
which modern technology has enhanced but, far from overturning the
assertion, it may simply have postponed the consequences - unless we
change to a sustainable pattern of living. Hence:
What can we do to make our lifestyles sustainable?
Purists may argue that life cannot be sustained indefinitely, but do we
really want to jeopardise succeeding generations through our evidently
unsustainable burning of finite reserves of fossil fuels? But what is
the target level for cuts in emissions? The IPCC recommends 60-80% by
2050. The EU has set an intermediate target of 20% by 2020. The UK
Climate Change Bill specifies at least 60% by 2050, with 26-32% by 2020.
These challenging targets may actually prove to be conservative, since
the work of the IPCC does not take full account of "tipping points" for
positive feedback mechanisms which bring the risk of runaway global
The Suffolk Climate Action Plan calls for a more stringent target of 60%
by 2025, and there are growing calls for 90% cuts by 2050. Where is the
consistency, and is any of this feasible?
I suggest that the possible actions fall into four broad categories.
Firstly, there are many simple actions which most of us can undertake,
which include switching "off" rather than using "standby", using washing
appliances only when fully loaded, using a washing line or airer rather
than a tumble drier, boiling only the water you need rather than filling
the kettle for just one or two cups, installing low-energy lightbulbs,
walking or taking the bus rather than the car; and in winter, closing
doors and windows, turning down the thermostat and wearing more clothes.
These simple actions save money as well as carbon emissions. They
become more attractive as energy prices rise: but they aren't enough.
The second set of actions cost a little more, but pay for themselves
quite quickly. If your house has cavity walls, insulate them. Likewise
insulate your loft. As you need to replace appliances, from fridges,
freezers, and washing machines to your central heating boiler or your
car, choose the most energy-efficient options. Thus we may reach our
2020 targets, but not for 2050.
The third set of actions comprises the things you might do but would not
have done otherwise, such as generating your own renewable energy, or
significantly modifying your home. They include double-glazing, solar
hot water systems, and newer technologies such as solar photovoltaic
panels, heatpumps, micro-wind-turbines, and external insulation for
houses with solid walls. Not all of these will be suitable for all
locations, nor will they necessarily offer complete energy solutions or
be compatible with existing energy-efficiency measures. Crucially, they
will tend to be expensive, and may struggle to repay the investment over
their operating lifetime. If they serve one valuable purpose, it is to
focus the mind on the important role of economics in tackling climate
change! Yet the Stern Report of 2006 suggested that an effective
response to climate change could cost as little as 1% of Gross Domestic
Product annually if undertaken soon enough. And more action will indeed
There is therefore an essential contribution to be made by a fourth set
of actions, which lie beyond the individual, such as wave and tidal
power, windfarms, nuclear power, carbon sequestration, and so on.
Cover, issue 172