World leaders put on a brave face at the Copenhagen climate change summit but, in reality, it was a disaster. From a Western perspective we can claim that the talks were sabotaged by China and India. If you doubt that, der Spiegel, has an audio tape of the leaders that reveals how the talks failed. You'll find the tape here. Draw your own conclusions.
It certainly sounds as though India, China, Brazil and South Africa don't want to see the 50% by 2050 emissions cut target put in place. Don't be so sure. There's another side to this, their side.
Their way of looking at it doesn't accept the West's "clean slate" approach. We want to forget about the past, the CO2 emissions going back to the start of the Industrial Revolution, most of which is still in the atmosphere. We're practical people (tee hee), we want to deal with today, the real world. What that means is we want across-the-board percentage cuts, specific percentage targets for all nations, with little tweaks here and there for the emerging economies.
Their approach doesn't let us off the hook for what we've done over the past two centuries. They want a reduction regime that reflects per capita quotas. Of course China and India between them account for a third of the global population so per capita is pretty attractive from where they sit.
Per capita quotas, however, are pretty alarming from our perspective. That's because we North Americans now put out about 20-tons of CO2 emissions per person per year. On a per capita basis we'd have to trim that in very short order to less than 2.7 tons per person per year. Unfortunately that would be the death knell of the fossil fuel industry as we would effectively have to decarbonize both our economy and our society.
But are per capita quotas fair? Well, they're at least as fair as our, across-the-board reductions approach. The deal we want essentially locks in for us a priority to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Percentage cuts lock in the current inequities ratios. America, for example, would still get to produce 25% of global emissions (at whatever reduced percentages were introduced) with but 5% of global population. That's 500% better than a per capita arrangement where everybody's equal. We want to grandfather our unjustifiable advantage.
So, both sides have good arguments but neither approach will achieve the global consensus that's absolutely essential to make this work. Is there an alternative? I think there is.
As I've argued repeatedly, you cannot solve the global warming crisis in isolation, which is the only approach we've tried. We've tried it - again and again and again - and we've failed - again, and again and again. The Spiegel tape confirms how the industrialized world and the developing countries are at loggerheads both with defensible positions, both defensible positions - without more - irreconcilable. Without More - there's your problem.
As Jared Diamond argues in his terrific book "Collapse", mankind is facing a host of environmental calamities but we haven't come to understand that we absolutely have to solve all of them if we're to have any hope of solving any of them. It's an "all or nothing" world today.
Among these challenges we must confront are overpopulation, resource depletion and exhaustion, all manner of freshwater problems, air/soil/water pollution, desertification, deforestation, nuclear proliferation and other threats to global security - among others. We have to find a means to keep each of these under control or risk losing control of all of them.
Within a generation, two at the very outside, we're going to have to find a way to live within mankind's skin, our biosphere, the only ecology we have, spaceship earth if you like. We're nearing the railway crossing and the lights are flashing. Here's what I mean. On 28 April, I reposted an item from 2006 on World Overshoot Day. That is the day each year on which the world's population consumes the planet's annual production of renewable resources. In 2006 it stood at 9 October. By 2009 it had fallen to 25 September. That ought to be alarming because it means that, just last year, from 26 September to year end, we were eating our seed corn. Want proof? It's easily found in our disappearing forests, our diminishing aquifers, our collapsing fish stocks, our ongoing transformation of arable land into desert. We're exhausting the very resources we need to provide next year's essential resources. We're consuming ourselves faster and faster. We advanced overshoot day two full weeks in just three years which is like driving toward a brick wall with your foot hard on the gas pedal.
We're at the point where we need to make some pretty hard choices and, if we don't, we may not like the default option. One option is a massive die-off of mankind and other flora and fauna. That's the course we're already on. It's coming due to a number of contributing factors. Here are a few.
The collapse of global fish stocks is one example. For a lot of the Third World, fish is their major or only source of protein. We're not merely overfishing, we're fishing our way down the food chain which means exhausting one species after another according to their desirability. The best die first.
Climate change is causing havoc with precipitation patterns, particularly in Asia, South Asia, Africa, Central America, the Great Plains and the American south. Regions are getting whipsawed by cycles of drought and flood. Any farmer will tell you that crops cannot be grown unless you get the right amount of precipitation and the right time. Drought means your crop fails. Floods mean you may not be able to get on the land to plant or you may not be able to get on the land to harvest and your crops rot in the field. Oh sure there's groundwater for irrigation but here's the thing. Those vast underground swimming pools we've been pumping out to water surface crops are beginning to run on "empty" and we don't have any solutions for that, especially in the face of disruptions of natural rainfall patterns.
Maude Barlow warns that our rapidly growing freshwater crisis presents an existential threat to mankind that may rival even global warming.
Then there's soil exhaustion and desertification. Farmland is like a slave. You can only work it so hard before it dies.
There was a time when parts of the world faced grave food shortages. The answer was what became known as the "Green Revolution." This entailed the use of pesticides, fertilizers and lots of irrigation to produce bumper crops with which to feed the hungry masses. The Green Revolution transformed India into a net food exporter. Neat, eh? Well, not so much.
The Green Revolution did introduce hyper-agriculture but we failed to understand it was unsustainable. Part of that arose out of the aquifer/groundwater problem already discussed. Another part was the inevitable impact of those pesticides and fertilizers on the soil. As the Indians are now discovering, Green Revolution farming techniques work the soil so hard that growing crops becomes much harder. Some farmers now have to use twice the fertilizer they needed before and the pesticides are creating highly resistant weeds also. This is like burning a candle at three ends. I guess it really doesn't matter much whether that farmland gives up the ghost from the collapse of irrigation or the sterility of the land itself, does it?
So how are we to find meaningful, effective solutions to these vexing challenges? We have to see the common thread that runs through all of them - reduction. Whether it's reduction of greenhouse gas emissions or reduction of freshwater consumption and wastage or reduction of hyper-intensive but unsustainable agrictulture or reduction of fishing quotas, forestry and, yes, even population, we have to see the answers lie behind us, in stepping back onto terra firma, instead of ahead, growth that can only accelerate our problems and our day of reckoning with them.
We in the West are going to have to accept responsibility for our excessive, unjustifiable carbon emissions. China and India are going to have to acknowledge their population crises. The industrialized countries and the emerging economic superpowers together have to accept their responsibility to compensate the Third World for the very real injuries we've inflicted upon them.
There are no solutions except global solutions to these problems. That's going to be a tough sell in our own Canada where we have vast territory, abundant resources and yet a tiny population of (by my rough calculation) one half of one per cent of the global population. Canada and countries in similar positions need leaders who can engage their publics and make them see they are not immune to the challenges facing less advantaged countries; that these are truly 'global' crises and that we cannot allow ourselves, through false notions of superiority or simple greed, to become the bottleneck that thwarts global consensus.
As James Lovelock proposes in his book "The Revenge of Gaia," there no longer is such a thing as "sustainable growth" and mankind's only hope for coming through this century relatively intact rests on accepting "sustainable retreat."
We have to retreat, we have no choice. The Earth cannot produce renewable resources in the volumes we have already allowed ourselves to become completely dependent upon just to maintain the status quo. We're running out of water, we're running out of arable land, we're running out of forests, we're running out of fish stocks, we're running out here and there and over there too. So how do we expect more unless we're willing to take it from somebody else and what we're talking about here are the very cornerstones of life itself.
So that is the "without more" I mentioned at the outset of this piece. We have to embrace sustainable retreat as the core principle of solutions to each of these environmental challenges, including global warming. We have to see that we cannot keep eating am ever bigger slice out of next year's pie and we have to go back to living within our environmental means because we have no other choice. That means retreat and that means finding an equitable allocation of all the world's resources among all the world's people.
We in the West and the expectant populations of the emerging economies won't much like that idea but they need to be made to understand that ignoring this environmental imperative comes with very real and very ugly costs for us all. This isn't going away and the only option for reaching manageable solutions has to rest on accepting sustainable retreat in our lives, in our society and in our economy.