In 1992, I was 15 and had never used the internet. The dramatic changes that have happened in my life and the surrounding world in the meantime are a good reminder of how long 20 years is. This week, politicians and organisations from around the world have gathered in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, for the “Rio+20” summit. The name refers to how many years it is since the “Earth Summit” meeting that set out a grand plan for the world to develop sustainably was held there. Much could have been done in that time – but has it?
According to the UN Environment Partnership, the number of passenger flights doubled, and energy and heat generation increased by two-thirds between the original Earth Summit and 2008. Worldwide forest area has shrunk by an area larger than Argentina, and population has increased by 1.5 billion, more than a quarter. Sustainability and climate change are intimately linked, for example with a warmer planet potentially harming wildlife and also agriculture. Since the Earth Summit, the world has warmed by 0.4°C on average, with the ten warmest years since records began in 1880 happening after 1998.
The 90s initially provided cause for optimism on the climate, especially when the Kyoto protocol to control CO2 emissions driving climate change emerged in 1997. But progress took a severe knock in 2001 when George W. Bush announced he would never sign it, and climate negotiations have made little progress since then. Then, at Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009 world leaders agree to weak targets that wouldn’t see emissions begin to fall until 2020.
For some idea of why it’s been so difficult, we can look at the statement issued last week by the world’s 105 science academies trying to influence the world leaders at Rio+20. In it they highlight the challenges population and consumption pose to sustainability, and called upon world leaders to take decisive action. Below is a slightly edited list of their key points:
- Population and consumption determine the rates at which natural resources are exploited and the ability of the Earth to meet our food, water, energy and other needs now and in the future;
- Current patterns of consumption in some parts of the world are no longer sustainable.
- Rapid population growth can be an obstacle to improving living standards in poor countries, to eliminating poverty and to reducing gender inequality;
- Changes in population age structure resulting from declining birth and death rates can have important environmental, social and economic ramifications, for example as a result of increased demands on healthcare and pensions systems;
- Population growth contributes to migration and urbanisation, which if unexpected and unplanned can be economically and politically disruptive and have serious environmental impacts, thereby preventing potential opportunities for economic and social development from being realised;
- The combination of unsustainable consumption and the number of people on the planet can directly affect our capacity to support natural biodiversity.
They call for government policies to consider how consumption can be harmful, and reduce the levels of that damaging consumption. The link they draw between consumption and the state of the planet echoes some research I’ve highlighted here on Simple Climate recently. In that, Edward Ionides and his colleagues showed that economic growth and the atmospheric CO2 concentrations that are driving climate change have been tightly linked for the past 50 years. It’s just one example of where, so far this year, whenever I’ve had the chance I’ve tried to look at the links between climate change and the way the world’s economy works. That has also shed light on how governments could try and reduce harmful consumption, in a way that won’t cause a revolution. “Stand-up economist” Yoram Bauman told me that taxes on fossil fuels could both reduce how much we burn, and cut how much we pay in other taxes.
But how much do we need to cut our consumption by? When I first started this blog, I tried to do the numbers on how much we needed to reduce our fossil fuel consumption per person – but checking back, I got those numbers wrong. I started by assuming we were emitting over 40 billion tonnes per year of CO2 already, when we reached 36.7 billion tonnes per year in 2010. That figure gives the deceptively reassuring result that our CO2 emissions are currently below the 2020 target. However, we do still need to reduce them dramatically, starting now and potentially needing to cut them to zero in 2100, if we want to stabilise climate change at 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
As people began gathering in Rio, I was at an event that was almost its complete opposite: the Le Mans 24 Hour race in France. Tempted there by a British ritual “stag do” to celebrate a friend’s upcoming marriage, I felt uncomfortable about the festival of consumption it represented. Not just the fuel burnt in the thousands of miles each car drove in that time. Also the huge consumption of meat and beer, and the massive waste of all the tents and unwanted camping goods left behind at the end. But amongst it all, there was cause for hope. The first and second placed cars were hybrids. If this example of excess can be recruited to help develop clean electric transport, perhaps our fossil fuel and other “damaging” consumption can be brought under control too.