Sunday, August 19, 2007

Focus on carbon 'missing the point'

Eamon O'Hara

The focus on reducing carbon emissions has blinded us to the real problem - unsustainable lifestyles.
Focusing on the need to reduce CO2 emissions has reduced the problem to one of carbon dioxide rather than on the unsustainable ways we live. Is it not time to recognise that climate change is yet another symptom of our unsustainable lifestyles, which must now become the focus our efforts?

Yet governments, and those organisations who have now assumed the role of combating climate change, subscribe to the notion that climate change is our central problem and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is the cause of this problem.

Undeniably, climate change is a serious problem but it is only one of a growing list of problems that arise from a fundamental global issue.

For many decades, the symptoms of unsustainable human exploitation of the natural environment have been mounting: species extinction, the loss of biodiversity, air and water pollution, soil erosion, acid rain, destruction of rainforests, ozone depletion - the list goes on.

Common cause

These problems all clearly have a common origin, yet the search for solutions has invariably focused on targeted treatments rather than addressing the root cause.

Success has, at best, been patchy. In general, none of these problems have completely disappeared and many have continued to worsen.

Global warming - the latest in this list of environmental woes - is a particularly worrying development, not only because it is potentially catastrophic, but because it is going to be incredibly difficult to control.

The solutions currently being put forward, such as those being championed by the European Union, focus almost exclusively on reducing carbon emissions.

However, by focusing on the need to reduce CO2 emissions has reduced the problem to one of carbon dioxide rather than on the unsustainable ways we live our lives.

This oversight has led to the assumption that if we reduce emissions then our problems are solved, hence the focus on carbon sequestration, renewable energies and environmental technologies.

This approach to curing our problems is a bit like relying on methadone to cure an addiction to heroin.

The large-scale transition to renewable resources might provide a safer alternative to oil and gas and other finite resources, but it will not remove our energy and resource dependency, which will continue to expand in line with economic growth.

Before long, we will discover that even renewables have their limits. We are already being warned about the dangers of excessive demand for biofuels, which is reportedly leading to the clearing of rainforests and increasing competition for land between food and energy production.

Ultimately, our problem is consumption, and the environment is not the only casualty.

The modern Western lifestyle also has an inbuilt dependency on the cheap resources and the low carbon footprint of developing countries, which has compounded global injustice.

Worse still, maintaining our relatively wealthy, comfortable and unsustainable lifestyles is now dependant on maintaining this imbalance.

Seventy-five percent of the world's population - more than 4.5bn people - live on just 15% of the world's resources, while we in the West gorge on the remaining 85%.

The world simply does not have the resources, renewable or otherwise, to sustain Western lifestyles across the globe.

Change of direction

So, what can we do? Obviously, the first thing we need to do is act, and act fast.

Every day we wait, another 30,000 children needlessly die; between 100-150 plant and animal species become extinct; 70,000 hectares of rainforest is destroyed and another 150m tonnes of CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, another $3.0bn (£1.5bn) is spent on arms and weapons of mass destruction.

We urgently need to think about the more fundamental concept of sustainability and how our lifestyles are threatening not only the environment, but developing countries and global peace and stability.

In my view, we need to embrace this as an opportunity and not see it as a responsibility. Living a more sustainable lifestyle does not have to be a burden, as some people fear.

It could be a liberating and rewarding experience to participate in creating a better world. After all, how good do we really have it at the moment?

How many people are tired and weary of modern living? The endless cycle of earning and consumption can be exhausting and does not necessarily bring happiness and fulfillment. Can we do things differently, and better?

If we don't, then we are heading for certain disaster, regardless of whether or not we manage to reduce our emissions.

Eamon O'Hara is a Brussels-based policy adviser for the Irish Regions Office, which represents Irish interests in the European Union

1 comment:

Sander Chan said...

That's the heart of the matter!