Hairshirt posturing vs everyday reality

After Bali: It ended in stalemate because while everyone poses as an opponent of CO2-emitting technologies, the fact is humanity needs them.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

‘It was exactly what we wanted, we are indeed very pleased. We will have now two tremendously demanding years, starting right in January.’ So said the European Union’s chief negotiator Humberto Rosa following the outline agreement forged at the UN climate change talks in Bali last weekend. But it seems quite clear that, on the substantive issues under negotiation, everyone simply agreed to disagree.

All parties to the conference agreed with the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that greenhouse gas emissions must be sharply cut over the next few decades to avoid damaging consequences as temperatures rise and weather patterns change. How that might be achieved is another matter. The European Union wants the industrialised countries to commit to a 25 to 40 per cent reduction in emissions, compared to 1990 levels, by 2020. The US is unwilling even to consider mandatory emissions cuts unless they also apply to developing countries, particularly China and India. Those countries, in turn, are unhappy with the idea of reining in emissions now that they are finally enjoying serious economic growth. The result is stalemate.

There is a great deal of bad faith going on here. The Bali Climate Change Conference was intended to be the first step on the road to a new international agreement on greenhouse gas emission reductions, replacing the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, which agreed emission reductions up to 2012. Yet Kyoto has hardly been a model of how to cut emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from industrialised countries may just hit the Kyoto targets, but only on the basis of some sleight-of-hand. Firstly, the start date was set in 1990 at a time of economic collapse in Eastern Europe and of relative deindustrialisation in larger economies like Germany and Britain. Secondly, some important aspects of overall sources of emissions have been ignored, including air travel. Since the Kyoto deal was signed, emissions in the countries that have ratified the treaty have actually gone up, not down (see Bali: no more jaw-jaw, this is climate war, by Rob Lyons).

Most countries in the EU haven’t even managed to cut emissions compared to 1990 and are in breach of their Kyoto commitments. Now Germany is building a new wave of coal-fired power stations and Britain is proposing airport expansion. It is hard to take the EU’s negotiating position seriously as a statement of intent. Rather, it appears to be a way of taking the moral high ground against the US and China in the sure knowledge that no such deal is likely to get signed in the near future and, even if it is, no one will stick to it. This was exactly the outcome of the Montreal conference in 2005 (see Keeping Kyoto on life-support, by Rob Lyons).

The basic problem is that in a number of important areas, there is no substitute for carbon-emitting technologies. For the foreseeable future, motorised transport on the ground, on water and in the air will be powered by oil. Electricity generation using renewables is unreliable and cannot provide the kind of capacity required by modern societies. Nuclear power could be the answer, but governments will have to get over their squeamishness about building plants and start making a positive case for nuclear. But in the meantime, power generation is going to involve burning a lot of coal and gas.

For all the hairshirt talk about making sacrifices, it would be irrational effectively to impose recession on developed and developing economies for the sake of cutting emissions. Far better to try seriously to attack the technical problems of creating a low-carbon economy while adapting societies so that they can more effectively withstand the kinds of problems that might be created by climate change. These are ‘no regrets’ policies. Even if climate change does not turn out to be as significant as is widely believed now, making countries more resilient to extreme weather, supplying clean water more reliably, and so on, will be beneficial immediately because many countries are facing these problems right now.

Above all, we could do without world leaders and eco-activists posturing about climate change as if it is an impending apocalypse that can only be avoided through enforced austerity. In fact, only economic growth and development can resolve the problems that climate change throws up. If only we could all agree on that.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

After Bali

Brendan O’Neill says Al Gore is an enviro-tyrant. James Heartfield exposes the eco-imperialism of the Bali summit. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today