[R-G] [BillTottenWeblog] Green Lifeline

Bill Totten shimogamo at attglobal.net
Fri Jul 11 03:42:54 MDT 2008

A radical new idea could save the world's ecosystems. But what will it
do to the economy?

by George Monbiot

Published in the Guardian (July 01 2008)

Almost everyone seems to agree: governments now face a choice between
saving the planet and saving the economy. As recession looms, the
political pressure to abandon green policies intensifies. A report
published yesterday by Ernst and Young suggests that the EU's puny
carbon target will raise energy bills by twenty per cent over the next
twelve years {1}. Last week the prime minister's advisers admitted to
the Guardian that his renewable energy plans were "on the margins" of
what people will tolerate {2}.

But these fears are based on a false assumption: that there is a cheap
alternative to a green economy. Last week New Scientist reported a
survey of oil industry experts, which found that most of them believe
global oil supplies will peak by 2010 {3}. If they are right, the game
is up. A report published by the US Department of Energy in 2005 argued
that unless the world begins a crash programme of replacements ten or
twenty years before oil peaks, a crisis "unlike any yet faced by modern
industrial society" is unavoidable {4}.

If the world is sliding into recession, it's partly because governments
believed that they could choose between economy and ecology. The price
of oil is so high and it hurts so much because there has been no serious
effort to reduce our dependency. Yesterday in the Guardian, Rajendra
Pachauri suggested that an impending recession could force us to
confront the flaws in the global economy {5}. Sadly it seems so far to
have had the opposite effect: a recent Ipsos Mori poll suggests that
people are losing interest in climate change {6}. Opportunities for
energy populism abound: it cannot be long before one of the major
parties abandons the pale green consensus and starts invoking an oil
cornucopia it cannot possibly deliver.

The British government maintains both positions at once. In his speech
last week, Gordon Brown said he wanted "to facilitate a reduction in
short term global oil prices" while seeking "to reduce progressively our
dependence on oil" {7}. He knows that the first objective makes the
second one harder to achieve. The government's policy is to build more
of everything - more coal plants, more nuclear power, more oil rigs,
more renewables, more roads, more airports - and hope no one spots the

Is there a way out? Could we abandon the fossil fuel economy without
provoking a blistering backlash? Two things are obvious. We need a
global system, and the current one, the Kyoto Protocol, is bust. It sets
no cap on global carbon pollution, its targets bear no relation to
current science and are unenforceable anyway, it contains loopholes and
get-out clauses wide enough to sail an oil tanker through.

Until recently I supported an alternative system called contraction and
convergence. Every country, this system proposes, should end up with the
same quota of carbon dioxide per person. The richest countries must
produce much less than they do today; the poorest ones could pollute
more. Another proposal flows logically from this one: carbon rationing.
Having been assigned its carbon quota, each nation would divide up part
of it equally among its citizens, who could use it to buy energy or
trade it among themselves. These proposals have the merit of capping
global pollution, of being fair, progressive and easy to understand and
of encouraging us to think about our use of energy.

But, after reading the proofs of a book by the independent thinker
Oliver Tickell, to be published this month, I have changed my view. In
Kyoto2: how to manage the global greenhouse, Tickell slaughters my
favourite ideas {8}. He shows that there is no logical basis for
dividing up the right to pollute among nation states. It gives them too
much power over this commodity, and there is no guarantee that they
would pass the pollution rights on to their citizens, or use the money
they raised to green the economy. Carbon rationing, he argues, requires
a level of economic literacy that's far from universal in the most
advanced economies, let alone in countries where most people don't have
bank accounts.

Instead Tickell proposes setting a global limit for carbon pollution
then selling permits to pollute to companies extracting or refining
fossil fuels. This has the advantage of regulating a few thousand
corporations - running oil refineries, coal washeries, gas pipelines and
cement and fertiliser works for example - rather than a few billion
citizens. These firms would buy their permits in a global auction, run
by a coalition of the world's central banks. There's a reserve price, to
ensure that the cost of carbon doesn't fall too low, and a ceiling
price, at which the banks promise to sell permits, to ensure that the
cost doesn't cripple the global economy. In this case companies would be
borrowing permits from the future. But because the money raised would be
invested in renewables, the demand for fossil fuels would fall, so fewer
permits would need to be issued in later years.

Tickell calculates that if the cap were set low enough to ensure that
the world became carbon neutral by 2050, the total cost of permits would
be about $1 trillion a year, or roughly 1.5% of the global economy. The
money would be spent on helping the poor to adapt to climate change,
paying countries to protect forests and other ecosystems, developing
low-carbon farming, promoting energy efficiency and building renewable
power plants.

But his figure seems too low. Like many of the world's climate
scientists, Oliver Tickell proposes that the concentration of greenhouse
gases should eventually be stabilised at 350 parts per million (carbon
dioxide equivalent) in the atmosphere, and his calculations are based on
this target. Last week Lord Stern suggested that meeting a less
stringent target (500 parts per million) would cost two per cent of
world gross domestic product {9}. If the price of the carbon permits
sold at auction were much higher than Tickell suggests, the extra money
could be used for massive tax rebates and social spending, aimed
especially at the poor. But could the world afford it?

This money doesn't disappear, it gets spent. Tickell's proposal could
represent a classic Keynesian solution to economic crisis. The $1, $2 or
even $5 trillion the system would cost is used to kick-start a green
industrial revolution, a new New Deal not that different from the
original one (whose most successful component was Roosevelt's Civilian
Conservation Corps, which protected forests and farmland) {10}. This
would not be the first time that business was rescued by the measures it
most stoutly resists: there's a long history of corporate lobbying
against the kind of government spending that eventually saves the
corporate economy.

Do we want to save it, even if we can? It is hard to see how the current
global growth rate of 3.7% a year (which means the global economy
doubles every nineteen years) could be sustained{11}, even if the whole
thing were powered by the wind and the sun. But that is a question for
another column and perhaps another time, when the current economic panic
has abated. For now we have to find a means of saving us from ourselves.

George Monbiot has received an honorary doctorate from the University of
St Andrews.



1. BBC Online, 30th June 2008. Green target 'to hike fuel bills'.

2. Juliette Jowit and Patrick Wintour, 26th June 2008. Cost of tackling
global climate change has doubled, warns Stern. The Guardian.

3. Ian Sample, 25th June 2008. Oil: The final warning. New Scientist.

4. Robert L Hirsch, Roger Bezdek and Robert Wendling, February 2005.
Peaking Of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management.
US Department of Energy. This was originally leaked and found its way
onto this site: http://www.hilltoplancers.org/stories/hirsch0502.pdf

5. Rajendra Pachauri, 30th June 2008. The world's will to tackle climate
change is irresistible. The Guardian.

6. Juliette Jowit, 22nd June 2008. Poll: most Britons doubt cause of
climate change. The Observer.

7. Gordon Brown, 26th June 2008. Creating a low carbon economy.

8. Oliver Tickell, forthcoming. Kyoto2: how to manage the global
greenhouse. Zed Books, London.

9. Juliette Jowit and Patrick Wintour, ibid.

10. Neil M Maher, 2008. Nature's New Deal. Oxford University Press.

11. http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/survey/so/2008/res040908a.htm

Copyright (c) 2006 Monbiot.com


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