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Scientists explore paths to ‘radical’ emissions reductions

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 12 December 2013 17:24 GMT

Recycling bins are seen at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales March 25, 2010. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

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From shaming wasteful celebrities to issuing personal carbon credit cards, new ideas are needed to curb the world’s rising carbon emissions and climate change, scientists say

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – After more than 20 years of effort to reduce them,  the world’s climate-changing emissions are still dramatically increasing year by year and “nothing that we’ve said or done to date about climate change has made any detectable dip whatsoever in that curve,” says Mike Berners-Lee, an environmental consultant at the UK’s Lancaster University.

That suggests it’s time for radical changes in how climate change is addressed – and that could involve anything from shaming Johnny Depp for his high carbon footprint to issuing personal “carbon allowance” electronic credit cards for every adult or launching a Marshall Plan to build a low-carbon energy supply by 2040, according to experts at a London “Radical Emissions Reduction” conference this week organised by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

“Whatever we’re doing, it’s not working, and we need to try something different,” said Berners-Lee, one of the speakers at the conference.

Since the 1880s, world temperatures have risen by just under one degree Celsius, and UN-led climate negotiations aim to hold total increases to under two degrees C – a level most climate scientists consider relatively safe.

But Faith Birol, the International Energy Agency’s chief economist, says the world’s rising carbon emissions are putting it “perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius.” How big a change would that be? The last time world temperatures were 2 degrees C cooler, much of northern Europe and northern North America were covered by a mile depth of ice, said Corinne Le Quere, director of the Tyndall Centre, based at the University of East Anglia.

And the last time world temperatures were just 2 degrees Celsius higher, the world sea level was 5 to 10 meters (16 to 32 feet) higher than it is today, she said.

“We would find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to adapt in a world of nine billion people” at dramatically higher temperatures, Le Quere said.

So what is standing in the way of bringing about needed emissions reductions? Everything from vested political interests and lobbying by fossil fuel companies to lack of time to engage with the problem, unwillingness by many people to give up comforts they are used to, and a view that climate change is too abstract and far in the future, particularly given other pressing and more immediate problems.

Solutions – such as a wholesale switch to renewable energy – might make life hugely better for many people in the long run by dramatically reducing their energy costs, cutting fossil fuel pollution that has choked many Asian cities and breaking the stranglehold big fossil fuel companies have on the world’s power supply.

But changeovers can have large short-term costs. And right now “the solutions (to climate change) are way too negatively framed,” Berners-Lee said, particularly for a human species “fine tuned to maximize well being.”


So what might help? Richard Wilk, a cultural anthropologist at Indiana University, suggests shaming high profile people with huge carbon emissions, including pop culture stars with private yachts and planes, as well as other conspicuous and wasteful consumption, such as on luxury clothing.

The world needs to “shift popular culture which admires and emulates increasingly outrageous consumption of the rich,” he said. That may involve “shaming individuals in front of their peers and the public,” he said, just as corporations and countries have been shamed in annual rankings of things like environmental destruction and corruption.

Portland, Oregon, in the United States, for instance, now names a “king and queen of water waste” each year, posting photos of the wasteful homes online, while also applauding people who have taken efforts to reduce water use.

Studies in the U.S. similarly have shown that printing on energy bills the average energy use of households in a neighbourhood tends to drive reductions in use by both big and small energy users. And “when big users cut, that makes cutting seem more fair to all,” Wilk said.

Tracking consumption of the rich won’t be easy, and the effort “flies in the face of about 200 years of consumer culture,” he said. But some high profile people seem ready to step up, including movie stars like Keira Knightley – and the UK’s Duchess of Cambridge – who have defended wearing dresses many times in public rather than bowing to pressure from fashion analysts to buy a new one for each outing.


Another way to drive emissions reductions might be to issue every adult in wealthier countries with a personal carbon budget, tracked through an electronic credit card. Each time a person bought fossil fuels for their car, or to heat or power their home, credits would be deducted. Those who use more energy could buy credits from those who use less, creating incentives for families to reduce their fuel use or turn to renewable energy to save or earn cash.

With personal transport and household energy costs accounting for about 40-50 percent of carbon emissions in richer economies, such a system could drive huge cuts in fossil fuel use, said Tina Fawcett, of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. It would also bring “a lot more visibility of carbon in society” and make it something people think about more when they make decisions, she said, as well as helping people understand better what a “normal” amount of energy use should be.

Other efforts are already under way, such as a growing fossil fuel divestment campaign, modelled on the anti-apartheid divestment campaign, aimed at pressing universities, pension funds and other big investors to drop their investments in fossil fuels. The U.S. city of Seattle has already announced its intention to divest from fossil fuels, said Naomi Klein, an author and expert on building climate change movements.

It may also be useful to look at the lack of action on climate change, in the face of growing evidence of the risks, as “a psychological problem even more than a rational problem,” said Berners-Lee.”Maybe we should even be looking at it as a global mental health problem,” he said – though others suggested the main obstacles to climate action are political.

While obstacles to effective action on climate change often look overwhelming “things can change rapidly,” suggested Le Quere, of the Tyndall Centre. Problems like ever more extreme weather could act as triggers that “make people change their minds about things.”

“In my mind it’s not too long until people who pay (for the damage) do the sums and (begin to) make decisions for their own budgets,” she said.

Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist at the Tyndall Centre, agreed.

Efforts to radically reduce emissions, “will be ridiculed” by many people as simply not practical, he said. But “I say living with four or five or six degrees (of warming) is not practical.”

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