Thursday, 22 September 2016

WORLD: Capitalism and Climate Change

When did global warming cease being merely a computer simulation? It must have been at some point between the 1970s, when the world experienced 660 natural catastrophes, and the last decade, with its 3,322 storms, heat waves and flooding. It came quietly, as most of us were looking away.

Since then, the ice cap at the North Pole is melting, glaciers in the Alps are disappearing and dikes on the North Sea have had to be heightened. Rainfall has become even more intense in Western Europe whereas precipitation has fallen in the southern part of the Continent.

On the Arabian Peninsula, which is almost entirely covered in desert, ground water levels are falling dangerously. In Africa and Central Asia, deserts are expanding. In Israel, Australia and Brazil, lakes and rivers are drying up. Soon, climate change could result in shortages of such goods as coffee, chocolate and wine from southern France. In the American South, on the coast of Louisiana, a piece of land the size of a soccer field disappears into the sea every hour. At such a rate, the New York Times Magazine recently calculated, Central Park would vanish within a month. The Principality of Monaco would be history after just 15 days.

In 2014, around 60 percent more greenhouse gases were pumped into the atmosphere than in 1990, the year against which most reduction targets are measured. There is little to indicate that the trend might soon change. And if it doesn't, if emissions continue at today's rate, the World Bank calculates that average global temperatures will increase by 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The consequences of so much warming, the World Bank says, would be "extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise."

The sheer scope of the destructive effect the production of fossil fuels already has today is visible when you visit places that provide the world with its supplies of coal, oil and natural gas. Louisiana, for example, an oil-rich US state whose coast is sinking into the sea and which is threatened by hurricanes. Or the Chinese coal province Hebei, whose 70 million inhabitants would be better advised not to leave their homes on many days of the year because levels of fine particulate matter go far beyond those considered to be safe.

Paris Climate Summit last November/December produced an agreement hailed as “historic, durable and ambitious”. Developed and developing countries alike are required to limit their emissions to relatively safe levels, of 2C with an aspiration of 1.5C, with regular reviews to ensure these commitments can be increased in line with scientific advice. Finance will be provided to poor nations to help them cut emissions and cope with the effects of extreme weather. Countries affected by climate-related disasters will gain urgent aid.

Like any international compromise, it is not perfect: the caps on emissions are still too loose, likely to lead to warming of 2.7 to 3C above pre-industrial levels, breaching the 2C threshold that scientists say is the limit of safety, beyond which the effects – droughts, floods, heatwaves and sea level rises – are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible.

Might it be enough, though, to fundamentally change the rules by which the global economy functions? The matter of fact is that we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.

In other words, climate protection and capitalism are mutually exclusive. In order to stop global warming, we have to use fewer resources. But in order to prevent the collapse of our capitalist economic system, unlimited growth is necessary. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed. And it's not the laws of nature. Our reaction to climate change is inversely proportional to the dimension of the problem it presents.

Is climate protection doomed to failure so long as the world continues to pursue growth? During that past two centuries, humanity has experienced something never before seen on this scale: a period of almost continuous growth. Earth's population has increased sevenfold since 1800. Per capita earnings have grown on average from $700 to $6,500 per year and economic output is 60 times bigger than it was 200 years ago. That continual boom, though, was made possible fossil fuels, resources people long held to be inexhaustible. Coal, followed by oil and natural gas, made unprecedented economic growth in Europe, America, Australia and Asia possible.

That growth is inevitably linked to destruction of nature and that the climate can only be protected by curbing economic activity. In other words, the only thing that can help the environment is giving up material things. "Less is more" is the mantra of the degrowth movement, which began more than four decades ago when a research group lead by the American Dennis Meadows was tasked by the Club of Rome to examine the frontiers of economic expansion in 1972. The resulting report was titled, "The Limits to Growth," and the theory that grew out of it has been finding great resonance ever since.

As proof of the irreconcilability of capitalism with environmental goals, economists like to cite the "rebound effect," which holds that all efforts to increase efficiency are negatively offset by increasing demand. The first person to describe the rebound effect was William Stanley Jevons of Britain. His book, "The Coal Question," was published 150 years ago and described how steam engines required decreasing amounts of coal because of technological advances. Nevertheless, he noted, consumption of the fuel continued to rise because an increasing number of steam engines were being used. Jevons concluded that more efficient use of energy is not accompanied by sinking consumption. Instead the opposite is true.

Newer car engines use less fuel, heating becomes more efficient and yet the total consumption of oil, natural gas and fuels continues to increase because automobiles get heavier and apartments larger. In that way, what has been gained in efficiency has been lost again -- at least to a certain degree. But the extent of the effect is the subject of debate.

A few studies have concluded that no more than 15 percent of the savings are lost. Others claim the loss to be as great as 30, 50 or even 80 percent. In some cases, though, the rebound effect can also destroy all efficiency gains. Lighting provides a good example. With each level of development -- from the candle to the light bulb to today's LED lights -- less and less energy was required, with efficiency increasing within 200 years by 1,000 times. And yet per capita use of lights has grown at an even faster rate -- by more than 25,000 times. A similar trend can be observed in crude oil. Thanks largely to improved extraction technologies, the global supply has grown so much that it has caused prices to collapse and triggered a renaissance of gas-guzzling SUVs.

Low energy prices should provide a natural opportunity to reform energy policies, at least in theory. Developing nations could pare back the subsidies they pay to make fuel cheaper for consumers. And industrialized nations should systematically invest the billions saved by consumers through cheap fuel into renewable energies. Unfortunately, though, that kind of farsightedness goes beyond the constraints of the current everyday political reality in which many governments are trapped.
That backdrop is the reason that proponents of degrowth consider the idea of green growth to be an illusion, indeed self-deception.

Of course, it is possible to reduce emissions by restricting growth. It is conceivable, but costly. Assuming a 1 percent reduction in both economic output and CO2 emissions in an environment of global gross domestic product of $70 trillion and emissions of 33 gigatons, it would cost $2,100 to cut a ton of CO2. By comparison, it would only cost around $40 to reduce the same amount of CO2 by instead using wind power.

Should greenhouse gas emissions continue as they are today, the world will likely reach the 2 degree Celsius maximum within 30 years. Indeed, in order to have any chance at all of stopping global warming at 2 degrees Celsius, emissions would have to fall by 10 percent per year starting in 2017 at the latest.

Prof Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
International Affairs Expert

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