Saturday, March 07, 2009

Green Providers and Carbon Sinks

This is a first for the Mabinogogiblog - a guest article from Gary Robertshaw
of The Green Providers Directory which seems to be a useful all-in-one-place portal for buying green products.

I have a different take on Gary's message, and my critique is at the foot.

Science fiction and pragmatism

Reading through some scientific papers recently I was struck by the many, well-intentioned ideas for tackling climate change. These included solar arrays in space beaming back microwave energy to Earth, burying charcoal, pumping iron into the oceans and various ingenious devices designed to block out the sun’s rays.

Whilst not questioning the need to seek new and innovative ideas to halt climate change, I couldn’t help but think that they were missing a more fundamental point. That is, they assume that we can carry on as we are and that technology will somehow get us out of our self-created mess. The reality is that it can’t - it’s like trying to build a perpetual motion machine. The planet’s capacity to provide for an unsustainably large and growing population of increasingly consumptive people is inherently limited. Beyond this point no amount of technology can fix the problem. That’s not an opinion from a ‘green-minded’ person – it’s a statement of fact.

Ironically, the solutions are already at hand and require no complex science or new technology. However, like an alcoholic who wants to give up drinking, it firstly requires a recognition that a problem exists. Analogously, governments need to understand that our volatile, oil-dependent capitalist structures cannot survive in the longer-term. Depletion of fossil fuels, increasing consumption and competition for scarce resources will inevitably lead to conflict and market collapse at some point in the future. Whilst this may seem self-evident, it remains the case that our entire economic model and cherished economic growth are predicated on this unsustainable platform – increasing output from a limited source.

In contrast, a shift towards a more sustainable economy, greater energy efficiency and investment in renewable energy would not only introduce greater stability into the markets but would also create many new job opportunities in the ‘green’ sector and associated spin-off businesses.

However, this process of change needs to be accelerated with meaningful investment and genuine commitment as progress remains slow. To put that in perspective, today less than 2% of the UK ’s energy comes from renewable energy sources. We are jostling with Malta and Luxembourg for the accolade of being bottom of the EU league table. The UK has potentially the largest offshore wind resource in the world. Some estimates put this at enough to power the UK several times over (source: Friends of the Earth). Other relatively simple measures could potentially have a huge impact on energy consumption. For example, legislation to remove standby buttons on electrical devices, banning standard light bulbs and patio heaters, etc….

In parallel, the global population needs to be stabilised. The Earth simply cannot support over 10 billion people without something giving. Whilst populations in some European countries are actually declining, this is being offset by large increases in countries such as India and Nigeria . This is an often ignored and politically sensitive aspect of sustainability policy yet it is one of the most significant problems we face, requiring a co-ordinated, global approach to the problem. Unfortunately, population control has traditionally been regarded as a national or religious issue rather than a global issue; consequently assistance from developed nations in the areas of women’s education, empowerment and birth control has often been inadequate.

What we need is not more science fiction type technology but a sober, concerted effort to tackle the core issues in a pragmatic and effective manner.

In my view, it is not a choice between CO2 reduction OR CO2 sinks.
We have to go for CO2 reduction and CO2 sinks.If we magically cut our CO2 emissions to zero today, we would still need to stimulate Earth's ailing carbons sinks tomorrow, because we are at the stage now when positive feedback loops are already in play, which will cause accelerating global warming even at present CO2 levels.

Try this thought experiment: two households, both identical in numbers of persons, energy usage and both with optimal energy conservation measures. One gives about £150 per annum to plant trees in an ecologically and socially sensitive way; the other does not. Who does less damage, the one who plants, or the one who does not plant?

Clearly, trees have virtues of their own, irrespective of their carbon sink properties. The provide for biodiversity, they modify microclimate, they provide shelter, food and forage, and also a useful and beautiful building material, wherein their carbon is locked for as long as the wooden structure lasts - so the better the quality of the structure, the longer it lasts.

Lastly, forests nourish our spirits.

So we should cut our carbon footprint and stimulate carbon sinks.

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