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April 25, 2013 12:35 PM How to Reduce Carbon Emissions: Listen to Business

By James Wimberley

Barack Obama (2009) :

President Obama is offering a U.S. target for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the range of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020…. In light of the President’s goal for an 83% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050, the pending legislation also includes a reduction in GHG emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2025 and to 42% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Similar pledges from the EU and China.

They could learn something from the hard-nosed capitalists.

  • Google : If you add in our renewable energy and offsets, our [carbon] footprint is zero.
  • Ikea (pdf page 12) : By the end of FY 20 [2020] the IKEA group will produce as much renewable energy as we consume in our operations.
  • WalMart : We’ve set three aspirational sustainability goals: … to be supplied 100% by renewable energy.
  • News Corp. (pdf, page 3) : We will .. become carbon neutral.
  • Marks & Spencer (pdf, page 23): Three objectives and 33 commitments: … Reduce our operational carbon emissions by 35% and make our operations carbon neutral.

Notice the difference? Politicians talk in percentage reductions. Businesses, if they take climate disruption seriously at all, set a goal of sustainability - zero net emissions, or 100% renewable energy. (They come to much the same thing except for agriculture and forestry, unsurprisingly not represented in my sample.) They are right.

Of course businesses have it easier. They can define the boundaries of their goal more or less generously; the supply chain is usually included only aspirationally. Ikea limits its goal to the operations of its stores, but within that it takes vigorous action. Energy-guzzling companies in cement and aluminium lie low. A government can’t cherry-pick the easy bits and has to include the whole economy in its targets.

Even so. There is no try here; forget about honourable failure. The human species has to go carbon-neutral or make its world uninhabitable, and we don’t have long to do it - perhaps thirty years if we get started now. James Hansen may well be right that we have to go carbon-negative on a large scale, and get back to a safe concentration of 350 ppm of CO2. So carbon neutrality is a minimum goal. Once we get closer, we will know whether it’s going to be enough.

A zero carbon goal has the immense advantage of being right. It’s also simple and comprehensible, and can motivate in a way that percentage fudges cannot. And it identifies the enemy. Fossil fuels must stay in the ground, the industries that extract them must die. As with slavery, compromise is impossible in the medium run.

So any political leaders who are serious about saving the planet and their countrymen from climate disaster have to take the zero-carbon pledge (footnote). Have any done so?

A very few countries have adopted a zero carbon goal or 100% renewable energy:

  • Bhutan - maintain current carbon neutrality thanks to hydro and forests ,
  • Costa Rica - carbon neutral by 2021, existing electricity 99% renewable
  • Denmark - 100% renewable energy by 2050
  • Netherlands – “fully sustainable” energy supply by 2050, no roadmap yet.
  • Norway - carbon neutral by 2050, including offsets
  • Maldives - carbon neutral by 2020 , if it isn’t drowned first
  • Tuvalu - same target, same qualification
  • Vatican City - carbon-neutral already through forestry offset.

In spite of zero-carbon rhetoric in New Zealand – “the first sustainable nation on earth”, actual targets are less ambitious.
The Canadian province of British Columbia has ambitious targets and policies just short of carbon neutrality. There are no doubt other good sub-state initiatives by cities and provinces.

For a more systematic take on action by country, see Climate Tracker.org.

My proposal to progressives is this: press our politicians to take The Pledge. Are you for saving the climate or against it? Are you drunk on CO2 or sober?

President Obama is still a pyroholic. He still thinks this is about his yet-to-be born grandchildren (life expectancy to say 2110), not his living daughters (life expectancy to >2085) or his and Michelle’s old age (life expectancy to >2043). And he will make one good step, like his (doomed) budget proposal to end fossil fuel tax breaks and make the renewable PTCs permanent, and then takes a step back with another “all of the above” speech.


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Endnote: slavery and temperance

As a political issue, stopping climate disruption is like ending slavery in its importance and its absolute, indivisible character. Let’s pray that we can avoid violence. Remember that in the the world outside the USA - the British Empire, Hispanoamerica, Brazil – slavery died with fairly little bloodshed, though not entirely peacefully. The climate revolution will at least require some civil disobedience to change policy, and normal coercion by law afterwards.

In another way the analogy is wrong. Slavery could not be ended by individual action, such as Washington’s freeing his slaves in his will. Northerners did not own slaves in the first place. But we all use energy, and can use less of it and shift to renewable sources. In that respect, it’s much close to the temperance movement, which had both a private component of individual commitment and action - the original Pledge - and a political one to impose change on society.

Of course, that political movement was misguided, inspired by priggish moralism, and over-ambitious. The individual one was exaggerated and ineffective in form. I’m not a teetotaller, still less a prohibitionist. I hesitate to use the language of a failed movement to give colour to a different and better cause. But Prohibition is beyond living memory for almost all Americans (a ten-year-old when it ended would be 90 today), and never happened elsewhere, so on balance I think one good slogan can be recycled. What do readers think?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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James Wimberley was head of the mutual assistance section of the department of education for the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and secretary to the Councilís higher education and research committee. He is retired.