A study by the Global Carbon Project calculated that by the end of 2013 we will have used up 70% of the Carbon Budget, the upper limit beyond which control of global warming becomes out of reach.
With a record 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO²) emitted in a single year, our chances of keeping global warming within the 2°C target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are significantly reduced.
This is a serious situation. We need to sweep aside cosy notions of carbon footprints and get down to brass tacks.
A graph of the level of CO² in our atmosphere is a straight line adding around two parts per million each and every year for the past 21 years since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. This is despite an economic recession, a spurt of investment in renewable energy and considerable efficiency gains made in, for example, cars and buildings.
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We are losing the war on carbon and we know what the consequences are – we need to look closely at the scientific facts, stop consulting, make clear decisions and get to engineering a viable solution.
Whilst the dictionary definition of ‘carbon footprint’ is clear, its interpretation has been corrupted by commercial and political positioning that loses sight of the big picture. For example, the activity of purchasing a television would have no carbon footprint in the UK, according to some definitions, but if we manufactured one in the UK its footprint would be revealed, taking into account extraction and transport of raw materials, manufacturing process, energy, waste and delivery.
The global atmosphere cares not a jot where the carbon from the manufacture of that TV comes from.
Between 1990 and 2005, while British carbon production fell by 15%, British carbon consumption went up more than 19%. We partied at carbon footprint conferences while the air we breathed relentlessly changed its composition.
‘Carbon footprinting’ maintains a misguided view of climate change as an accounting issue, slightly irrelevant, something to be dealt with later, when, in fact, it could be the biggest inter-generational hospital pass of all time.
We need to educate society about the process by which it can interact with this issue in a way that is respectful of the other issues that surround us but not dismissive of the potentially dramatic long-term effects of carbon mismanagement. A carbon footprint does not help with that, whereas a graph of CO² concentrations with a resultant damage assessment does.
A situation analysis has been carried out by the IPCC with regard to the influence of CO² on global climatic conditions, but it has failed to tackle the resultant consequences of inaction in enough detail.
Meanwhile, we have jumped to hasty decisions. An example of this can be found in the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change’s offer of subsidies for the technologies of the day without a proper assessment of affordability. If we can’t pay for something, it’s a safe bet that we can’t have it. What is the point of a carbon target you can’t afford? Who does it help?
Increasingly, we have seen the media reject the idea of ‘green levies’ and campaign vigorously to cut the consumer cost of paying for greener fuel. The debate is full of rhetoric but the underlying message is that, in these austere times, clean technology needs to be affordable and have a financial payback. Debate about carbon footprints and climate change are failing to get ‘buy in’.
We need to go back to first principles, deal with the science and close the gap between scientific consensus and the public consensus. Climate science is not something to be believed in or not – it’s just science.
If society was able to achieve that consensus and state which problems it wished to solve and in what order, we could engineer a robust, project-based approach to a least-cost solution.
Innovative new businesses have led technological advances for centuries, attracting investors to a return that reflects the risks taken. The objective function was easy: provide new products and services that were better and cheaper but didn’t harm customers or staff and the environment (river water, smog, etc.).
The climate change agenda requires society to decide what future it wants. From there, businesses and investors can go about efficiently delivering it.
Clean technology innovation needs to go back to basics – who will buy it and what will they get in return?
The carrot and stick isn’t working on a global level. We need the commercial aspects to stack up if we are going to have a fighting chance of changing the minds of the many, and not just the few.
The starting point is to explain clearly that what we are doing is currently not working on any scientific assessment. It’s not about carbon footprint, it’s about carbon dioxide.