09 June 2010

Could the US overtake Europe on climate change?

I'm beginning to think the US may get its climate change act together sooner than Europe. This op-ed from the NY Times suggests that notwithstanding the poor show at Copenhagen and the cold winter, most Americans believe that climate change is happening and we need to do something about it. Sounds obvious, but a relief to know. Maybe the terrible oil leak in the Gulf, which has blown up the administration's "drill plus energy bill" tactic, could be a force for good in the long run, by reminding everyone what unpleasant stuff oil is.

In Europe, on the other hand, we may be losing it a bit. Especially the British (though I suspect this is mostly because British people enjoy being contrary for the sake of it). Fortunately the EU Commission is now proposing a 30% cut in our emissions irrespective of what the rest of the world does, when originally we only wanted to cut by 20%. Maybe if we can pass that and start acting on it we'll get taken seriously again. In the meantime, we can carry on selling solar technology to the rest of the world. A trip to Germany last weekend reminded me just how mainstream solar has become, if the subsidies are right. See picture above.

02 June 2010

Collier versus Lovelock

Two contrasting points of view on climate change and sustainability this week from two very different academics: Paul Collier and James Lovelock.

Last week, Professor Paul Collier spoke at the LSE about his new book: The Plundered Planet. I bought the book, but haven't read it yet. It sounded like a development economist's belated recognition that the earth may have a carrying capacity, that we may be exceeding that carrying capacity and that this may be a problem for future generations. He was careful not to describe himself as an environmentalist - indeed, he was keen to stress that his analysis would upset many environmentalists - but rather as having grasped that unsustainable use of resources is both unfair and inefficient. In effect, by 'plundering' we are stealing both from other people and future generations who have a claim to their benefits.

Collier's insight may seem banal to anyone who has been working on climate change, agriculture or environmental questions - but some of the conclusion bear closer examination. First, natural resources should belong to countries, NOT local residents who are entitled to compensation, but no more. (Good luck explaining that in the Niger delta). Second, sharing the resources with future generations doesn't imply keeping it unchanged, but ensuring that the BENEFIT is shared equally. So if you convert a patch of forest to farmland, that's OK as long as there is an income stream for future generations (and an offsetting emissions reduction somewhere else).

A week later, I saw James Lovelock speak at the Hay-on-Wye book festival. It was less of a presentation, more of a chat: but like Collier, he managed to infuriate the environmentalists by pleading for urgent investment in nuclear power and admitting that we may be too late to stop serious climate change. There is a paradox here. His Gaia theory, which describes the self-equilibrating interaction between the earth's ecosystems and its atmosphere, predicts that life will eventually adjust to climate change, through a combination of adaptation and corrective feedback. So life, in some form, will survive whatever we throw at the system. Our particular species need not, however. Or at least, not in our present number or form. Lovelock can sound blasé when describing a future in which we have all adapted - but he describes something that most of us would find disastrous: namely, a population crash to below one billion, drastic changes to food and lifestyles, no more skiing in winter.

To give both thinkers credit, I suppose I should read their books as well as go to their talks. Meanwhile here is a good review of Lovelock's talk and Hay in general from John Harris in the Guardian and a not so good review of Collier's previous book, the Bottom Billion.