Mindful Consumption is easy, and it will have a big effect on our carbon emissions. Through our choices, industries will change their behaviour. They must: industry always reacts when their customers vote with their wallets. But you are just one person. No matter how mindfully you live your life, it is not enough. Living and consuming mindfully is necessary but insufficient to end the gamble we are taking with our planet.
Everyone has to change in order for us to eliminate the risk we are taking with our children's future. The only way to ensure this will happen is by invoking the power of our governments. We must act to ensure everyone acts.
Action means voting. Unfortunately, not everyone takes this action and the lower the level of government, the less active we are. What is also quite worrying is - our youngest voters, who will face the most serious consequences of global climate change, are the least active voters. That needs to change.
Also interesting are the winning margins in the Canadian elections: obviously the outcomes of these elections could have been different if more people had been motivated to exercise their right to vote. Given the seriousness of what we are facing today, we need everyone to cast a ballot for the people and party that can do the best job of fixing global climate change.
But who are the best people, and the best party? How do we decide? Let's start figuring this out by discussing what we should be asking our politicians to do; what should they be aiming for?
What target do we shoot for?
How much should we reduce our carbon emissions by? What is the target we should be aiming at? Unfortunately, the target is moving, and it is often disguised by misinformation and misdirection. There is a lot of talk in the media, which is echoed by many politicians, that we should be aiming to reduce our carbon emissions enough that we hold any rise in temperature to 2C. Okay, but 2C over what date?
Some pundits talk about holding the increase in temperature to 2C over the year 1750, which means we should not allow our world to become any warmer than 2C higher than the way it was at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Since we are already .8C warmer since then, that means we can only risk another 1.2C increase.
Others believe we shouldn't allow our climate to warm up more than 2C above where it is today. These people want us to be no warmer than 2C above the year 2000. What is the target we should be shooting for?
Instead of setting a temperature target, politicians also frequently give a goal for reducing emissions. In 2009 we have seen several of these offered by various political organizations. The US Congress has proposed a 17% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 and a total of 83% reduction by 2050. But based on what year? The Kyoto Accord promised reductions below the levels in 1990. Since 1990 the amount of carbon in our atmosphere has increase 8.5%. Are the politicians talking about reducing emissions to 17% and 83% below 1990 levels?
Unfortunately, no. Just as there is confusion over the temperature target, there is also confusion over the emissions targets because some countries (notably Canada) are choosing their own base year. Worldwide, carbon emissions have risen 50% between 1990 and 2005, according to the USA Energy Information Administration. The year 1990 is the base year set by the signatories to the Kyoto Accord. The US Congress has set its base year as 2005. Their plan is to reduce carbon emissions by 17% below 2005's emissions by the year 2020. This plan is now being debated in the US Senate and it may take another year before the USA formally and legally commits to any binding target. Fortunately, the US Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) has recently ruled that CO2 is a pollutant that threatens American lives. This does allow President Obama to set his own targets and procedures to achieve these targets without Congressional or Senate approval, if he decides to go that route.
The Group of Eight (G8) countries stated in July of 2009 that, "...the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2 degrees C." In their communique they went on to say that the industrialized countries should reduce their emissions 80% by 2050, and that whole world should cut our emissions 50% by that time. As soon as this communique was released, Canada and Russia declared the targets to be merely aspirational, and certainly not binding upon anyone.
So what is Canada's target? The Conservative government in Canada has set their target for carbon emissions reductions at 20% by 2020. Canada was a signatory of the Kyoto Accord: they agreed in this accord to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 6% below 1990 levels, by 2012. In 2006, emissions had increased around 22% from the 1990 level. If Canada succeeds in reducing 2006 level emissions by 20% by 2020, they will have basically returned the levels to where they were in 1990. (Canada will be 2.5% below 1990's level.) The new Canadian targets will not meet its Kyoto commitment in either timeframe or amount. By setting the base year to be 2006, however, the Canadian government will ignore the work done to date by various industries and provincial governments who did managed to reduce emissions before 2006, in the attempt to meet Canada's Kyoto commitment. These people will have to start all over and create newer reductions from a new base year, while other people who did not try at all, get to start from the newer and easier base year.
How the world's politicians propose to achieve these modest goals we will discuss in a moment. For now, our next question is - what should the targets really be if we want to end the great greenhouse gamble we are taking? Never mind the politicians, what do the scientists say we need to achieve?
The Scientists' Target
Of concern are both the levels of CO2 in the air and the amount of temperature we can safely tolerate. Both have negative consequences, despite their interdependency. Let's start with considering what is a safe temperature increase. 2C seems to be considered by many politicians as the "safe" amount of temperature rise we can risk - but is this true? 2C actually isn't safe at all, it is just easier to obtain than stopping any increase at all.
Remember what the IPCC said would happen if we warmed up by 2 degrees?
At 2C we lose 20% of our food crops
At 2C we put at risk 30% of all species on the planet
At 2C we could raise sea levels by .5+ meter
At 2C most coral around the world is wiped out
At 2C we may tip many positive feedback loops
- The Arctic ice is gone in summer, making the whole planet warmer,
- More water vapour enters the atmosphere, making the whole planet warmer,
- 15% of the land will stop absorbing carbon and will start emitting it, making the whole planet warmer.
For the moment, let's assume that we could reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, does this mean that we hold to a 2C rise in temperatures? Again, unfortunately, no.
"Even when emissions are stabilized at 90% below present levels at 2050, this 2.0C threshold is eventually broken."
Weaver, A. J., K. Zickfeld, A. Montenegro, and M. Eby (2007), Geophysical Research Letters Vol 34, October 6, 2007
"To hold to 2C requires CO2 ... to be held at where we are today" [which is 385 ppm]
The targets being talked about in the media and by politicians, of reducing emission by 80% by 2050 do not keep us below the 2C threshold. And the 2C threshold is not a safe place to be anyway. We need to do much more to avoid the risk we are taking.
Dr Hansen made a plea to reduce carbon to 350ppm. That is the "safe" level. To stay where we are today, we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70%. To get to where Dr Hansen urges us to be, we need to reduce GHG emissions 80% by 2020 and 90% by 2030. These targets are the ones we need to meet to eliminate the risks we are taking.
What does it take to hold to 2C?
What these facts here are telling us is - we are already above where we need to be to hold to a 2C increase ... we need to reduce, not slow down the growth in GHGs. But we have to reduce by 70% just to hold at 450 ppm; thus, to hold where we are today, at 385 ppm, will obviously require reductions greater than 70%!
So far, we have been addressing only the effects of GHGs on temperature, but even if the temperature were not linked directly to CO2 levels in the atmosphere, too much CO2 would have other effects on our climate. Increased CO2 affects the ph balance in our oceans, making it more acidic, which in turns makes life very difficult, if not impossible, for many shell making species, including some of the tiniest plankton. For several reasons, we need to dial back the amount of GHGs we emit considerably, and quickly. (Please visit the Science Section for more details.)
Now for the good news!
It is possible!
The 19th Century belonged to Coal
The 20th Century belonged to Oil
The 21st Century will belong to Renewables
We can reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2020. The technology already exists. In Plan B, by Lester Brown, a clear and doable path is laid out for us. Through the use of solar energy, wind and wave energy and thermal energy along with creative reductions in our demand for energy, we can achieve this goal.
Sales of solar cells are doubling every two years. Germany, a northerly country like Canada, basically at the same latitude as Vancouver, is leading the way, not with massive government investment, but through wise government policies. The German economy is actually being strengthened by their use of alternative energy. Many poor countries have no natural resources but plenty of sunlight and deserts. They can become the "haves" of the 21st century! Algeria is already planning a huge infrastructure to provide solar-generated electricity to Europe, preparing for the day when their oil revenues run out. This is all economic good news.
Growth in wind technology is close behind solar, doubling every 3 years. Many farmers are making more money from their land by harvesting wind than they make selling their crops, but they can do both! Again, this is a win/win ... a win for the economy and a win for the environment.
The German renewable-energy sector now "generates about $240-billion in annual revenues and employs a quarter-million Germans. Germany's wind industry created 8,000 jobs in 2007 alone, and one recent study suggested that the renewable sector could provide more work than the auto industry (currently the nations biggest employer) by 2020." (The Globe And Mail, August 2, 2008)
Iceland uses geothermal to heat 90% of their homes. Lester Brown, of Plan B fame, writes in his Plan B updates, "First begun in Larderello, Italy, in 1904, electricity generation using geothermal energy is now taking place in 24 countries, 5 of which use it to produce 15 percent or more of their total electricity. In the first half of 2008, total world installed geothermal power capacity passed 10,000 megawatts and now produces enough electricity to meet the needs of 60 million people, roughly the population of the United Kingdom. In 2010, capacity could increase to 13,500 megawatts across 46 countries: equivalent to 27 coal-fired power plants."
All these alternative energy sources could replace our dependence on carbon-based fuels, and we have not even considered the nuclear options, which may not be needed in the long term. We haven't discussed other renewable sources such as wave power generation and solar roof top water heating, which is growing quickly in developing nations.
And we have not considered all the important ways we can reduce our energy needs through proper design and retrofitting of buildings, appliances, trains and cars. The advent of the plug-in hybrid will completely change the world. GM estimates that the Volt, available in by 2012, will get 150 miles/gallon! And with a range of 40 miles on batteries only, most people will never need to use the gasoline engine. Whether it is GM, Toyota, or some new start up, these new cars will have a huge impact on meeting our goals.
"The question is no longer whether we can develop a climate-stabilizing energy economy, but whether we can develop it before climate change spins out of control"
Lester Brown - Plan B
Creating Political Will
Can we change in time? As we have just seen, we can - if we really want to. It requires will: personal will and political will. If we really want to change and stop the risk we are taking, then we need to create enough political will to make the change.
Political Will can come from special interest groups, large fundraising organizations or from the grass roots. It is up to us to decide where, in the end, political will comes from. Will we allow a few large corporate institutions to decide for us what is in the world's best interests? Will we allow trolls and astroturfers to sway the majority? We are being subjected to a propaganda exercise that is comparable to anything that governments have tried during war times. The current disinformation campaigns being run by the same public relations firms and hired guns that delayed action on advertising the harmful effects of smoking, is succeeding in confusion people and politicians alike. If we really want to end the risk we are taking, we need to listen to the top scientific bodies in the world and follow their recommendations. We need to create political will that will help us, not delay us.
Ultimately, we decide who gets elected. It does not take many new or lapsed voters to dramatically change the results of any election. And here is something you probably heard before, YOUR VOTE COUNTS! Think of it this way, no-one's vote counts more than yours. Stephen Harper and Barak Obama each get just one vote, the same as you. You are completely equal to any movie star, superstar athlete, businessman, or yoga teacher, but you are only equal if you cast your vote.
There are always elections happening. We need to not only vote in the national elections, but also at every level of government. What the federal politicians fail to do, our state, provincial and city officials can help to achieve.
We have seen that trying to hold to a 2C rise in temperature over the pre-industrial level is not salvation. We need to reduce our emissions by 80% by 2020, not the 17% or 20% being touted today by politicians. Equally important is the way we hope to get to the right emissions levels.
There are three main ways suggested for reducing emissions of dangerous greenhouse gases. These are:
Cap and Trade
When we are considering voting for a politician who is promising action on global warming, we not only need to know his or her targets for emissions, the base year being used and the expected date to achieve the reductions, but we also need to know his or her proposed approach to achieve these reductions.
If we listen to the expert economists, the best way to achieve reductions in emissions in GHGs is to use a broad based carbon tax. The USA Congressional Budget Office released a study in Feb of 2008 that evaluated the main options and concluded, " A tax on emissions would be the most efficient incentive-based option for reducing emissions and could be relatively easy to implement." The carbon tax approach is the simplest and quickest way to impact emissions. It is easy to set up and apply, and the revenues generated by the governments can be used to fairly compensate those citizens who are the most hurt by the higher price of carbon.
The burning of fossil fuels is heavily subsidized all around the world, and especially so in the third world. These subsidies make it appear that gasoline is a cheap fuel source, but when the true and full cost of gasoline is reflected in its price, other forms of energy become quite competitive. According to the International Center for Technology Assessment , the true cost of a gallon of gas in the U.S.A. ranges from around $5/gallon to as high as $15/gallon. Since the price at the pump is around $3/gallon, the missing $2~12 is a subsidy paid by everyone else to drivers. Surprisingly, over and above the subsidies to drivers in the USA, Oil & Gas companies receive almost $40 billion dollars in direct subsidies every year, and coal companies receive $8 billion. These companies are some of the most profitable companies in the history of the world; do they really need such huge subsidies, designed to keep us dependent upon artificially cheap carbon base fuels?
Economists tell us that if we set the price of Carbon to be around $120/tonne, which means about $1/gallon, slowly phase it in over many years then we will effectively move our economy to a minimal-carbon based one quickly. A carbon tax of $1/gallon does not come close to repaying the true, hidden cost of consuming gasoline. Oil price fluctuations can easily dwarf the carbon tax. This means that nay-sayers who claim that a carbon tax will kill the economy must also believe that a $1/gallon increase in the price of oil will bring the whole Western economy to a screeching halt.
Cap & Trade
Less effective but politically more palatable (who wants to propose something with the word "tax" in it?) is the Cap & Trade approach. Here, a cap is placed on the quantity of carbon that can be emitted by an industry or a company. If a company reduces their emissions to a level below their individual cap, they can sell the amount that they were under their cap to other emitters who are over their cap. Trading markets are being established to make this trading of credits easy, in the same way that stocks in companies are easily traded today. If everyone is over their cap, the offenders can buy credits from a government run auction. The governments, ideally, will use the funds from these auctions to invest in less carbon intensive energy sources, or to help those who have the most difficulty adjusting to a carbon-free lifestyle.
Initially the caps will be set quite high, allowing industries time to adjust to the new way they will have to do business in the future. In time, the caps will come down, year after year, until everyone is emitting less carbon. Many governments plan to not only auction carbon cap credits, but they also plan to give many away, to help companies get used to the concept. Unfortunately, too many credits given away defeat the whole point of the Cap & Trade process.
Comparing a Carbon Tax to Cap & Trade
There are several benefits to a carbon tax. The price is known, which means everyone can plan with certainty, including businesses, which like certainty. (Compare this to a Cap and Trade approach, where quantities of CO2 emissions are fixed but price is a variable: business really don't know how much they will have to pay for each ton of CO2 they release.) A carbon tax affects everyone, whereas the Cap & Trade approach can only be implemented for companies, not individuals. Thus the Cap & Trade doesn't affect all the source of emissions of carbon, because individuals and governments are also big emitters. Cap & Trade may not generate any government revenues whereas the revenues gathered by governments from a carbon tax can be re-distributed back to those who are socially disadvantaged. Finally, a carbon tax can be easily increased or decreased as the impact of the tax is felt in our emissions.
There is another approach often proposed by politicians who don't want to stifle any economic growth while attempting to reduce carbon emissions. This approach has various names, including "intensity targets" and "relative reductions." American President Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are fans of intensity targets, although President Obama is favouring the Cap & Trade approach.
In November of 2009, China announced that their GHG reduction program will also use this approach. The Chinese program will reduce the intensity of their carbon emissions, relative to their economy, by 45% by 2020.
What does this all mean? A 45% reduction sounds good, but let's look closer. Suppose you had a business that had a fleet of 5 trucks. Let's also suppose each truck emitted 10 tonnes of carbon every year. Under an intensity target scheme for carbon reduction, your government tells you that each truck must reduce its carbon emission by 10% each year, or else! You follow orders and tune up your trucks, make sure you have your tires inflated to the right levels, and you now emit only 9 tonnes of carbon each year. For all 5 of your trucks in total, you have reduced emissions from 50 tonnes to 45 tonnes. But, business is booming, so you buy 2 more trucks, and each new truck emits the same 9 tonnes as your other trucks. In total your company's fleet of trucks, which were emitting 50 tonnes of carbon every year, is now emitting 7 times 9, or 63 tonnes of carbon. Your "intensity" has gone down by 10%, but your total emissions have gone up 26%!
Canada would like to use this same accounting sleight of hand to deal with growing emissions from the Alberta tar sands. While Canada hopes to reduce the amount of GHG emissions per barrel of oil produced in the tar sands, they also hope to dramatically increase the total production of oil far more than any intensity reductions. The net result means much more carbon will be emitted, not less. [There is some indication that the Canadian government is reconsidering their intensity target approach in favour of a Cap & Trade system, but details have not yet been released.]
Intensity targets are not a practical way to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. They do not eliminate the risk we are facing with global warming. Intensity targets put the mirage of economic growth ahead of the environment. In the long run, the economy will be harmed severely if we allow governments to attempt to implement reductions in GHG emissions by using intensity targets.
What to ask of your politicians
Political will comes from the voters. You decide who gets elected. Lobbyists, trolls, astroturfers, large energy associations, etc. may attempt to persuade you, but they cannot cast your ballot. You decide.
Around 40% of North Americans do not bother to vote. If they did, the results would be considerable. Vote! Get your friends and family to vote. Before you vote, check out what your candidates are proposing. Ask questions.
Ask for their thoughts on global warming. Do they recognize the magnitude of the risk we are facing? If they do not, take this very carefully into consideration when you decide whom to vote for. If they do recognize the danger we are facing, ask them what GHG emissions reduction target will they push for: is it enough? What base year are they using? By when will they feel we will reach the reduction? Finally, ask them what approach they propose using to get to these reductions: remember the carbon tax is the most effective approach, although sometimes thought to be politically suicidal. (Interestingly, British Columbia's ruling Liberal party did establish a carbon tax and managed to get re-elected, so it is only a myth that the carbon tax is political suicide.) Intensity targets are useless.
Tell the candidates what it will take to win your vote. If you let them know, they will change their tune. They want to represent you. They can only do that if they know what you want. Let them know that the science says we need to reduce emissions by 80% by 2020! Are they willing to do what it takes?
Find out all you can, and then make the wise choice. No-one can tell you how to vote, but we can urge you to vote mindfully. If you agree that we all need to vote with full awareness of these issues, then you may want to share in the resolution below:
Aware of the damage to our democracy, environment and our country caused by unmindful voting, or not voting at all, I resolve to exercise my right to vote at all levels of government and to stay in touch with my representatives.
- Talk to the candidates - explain how they can win your support
- Ask for their specific plans & review their plans
If you need help evaluating their proposals, there are experts willing to help.
In Canada, check with the David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute or the Sierra Club of Canada
- Vote for the candidate who you believe is best
- Keep in touch with your representatives
- monitor how they are doing: let them hear from you between elections
- ask them how they are doing on meeting their promises