Monday, October 11, 2010

A "Preening Pig"

Them's fightin' words.   Maybe not but they do reveal a huge obstacle in the way of any meaningful deal to cut global carbon emissions - China and the United States.  A round of UN climate talks in China ended without result save for some angry finger pointing that led one Chinese delegate to accuse the U.S. of acting like a "preening pig" by criticizing China when America had itself done so little to cut carbon emissions.

What underlies the Sino-American tensions is the Gordion Knot of climate change, the issue that goes largely unmentioned.   An effective climate change/global warming/carbon emissions reductions plan would mean we in the West would have to voluntarily accept less of the emissions pie, a lot less.

Look at it this way.   China's total carbon emissions only just began to exceed America's.  But China has more than four times America's population.   China looks at the emissions issue from a per capita perspective.   Each man, woman and child in China is responsible for less than a quarter of the emissions that should be credited to each American.   Hence America is still the worst offender and in no position to lecture anyone else.

Washington's position is even more problematical.   Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the West has dominated manufacturing and, hence, associated carbon emissions.   Our economies are still tied to disproportionately heavy emissions.  If anything we should be stampeding for alternative energies but the Fossil Fuelers are having none of that nonsense and they hold sway in places like Washington and Ottawa.   Hence the way forward, in our blinkered view, depends on the industrialized West retaining our emissions dominance.

This brings us to something nobody wants to talk about - our atmosphere's dwindling carbon carrying capacity.   Our atmosphere, that gaseous onion skin that allows us to live on this planet, can only hold a finite amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases before the earth breaks through the safe warming point and triggers runaway global warming.  We  know with fair precision how much greenhouse gas is already in the atmosphere and that allows us to work out just how many tonnes more can be safely chucked up there.  The question becomes how to divide that steadily shrinking pie.

We in the West want the lion's share of the remaining emissions carrying capacity.  It's a
"just because" position that's otherwise indefensible.   That's why we don't ever talk about it.   We not only want, we positively insist on, the right to continue emitting greenhouse gases at far higher levels than anyone else.   Unless our 20% of the global population continues to enjoy two-thirds of the remaining emissions capacity our economies falter.  Tied directly into this is our willful refusal to embrace alternative energy sources and our slavish insistence on growth.

We cannot solve the unique, 21st century challenges with 18th century economics and geo-politics but that is all we're bringing to the table.    Best we don't dwell on it.

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