Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Low Hanging Fruit

Everyone knows that preventing climate change, or at least the worst consequences of it, is not going to be easy. This is going to be a big challenge for the world and for every single country in it. Many scientists now think we are at, or very close to, the point of no return. Copenhagen is now less than a month away, and expectations are being lowered by our leaders, even as the pressure on them is increasing. While the task required is large and difficult, there are some simple, quick, and easy fixes that can make a real difference, and perhaps even buy us more time. But they are being ignored.
In the long term, we are going to have to change our infrastructure in order to be able to live sustainably and permanently keep emissions down. This will involve changes to transportation, agriculture, energy use and distribution, and consumption. For example, we need sustainable farming methods in order to avoid depleting soil so we can continue to grow as much food as we need in the future. We also need to increase rail use for cargo and passengers, and decrease the use of cars and trucks. These are necessary, but they can't be done overnight.

In the short term, though, we do have some options. One of the most obvious is to eliminate the manufacture and use of plastic water bottles. This is a massively wasteful product, both in terms of resources and energy, and is completely unnecessary. Just over a decade ago, most people didn't even buy these products, so eliminating them would have little effect on people's lives. Some towns and cities have already banned these products, and we must do the same at the national and international level. This should be a no brainer.

A second easy option is to ban junk mail. This is a "product" the majority of people don't even want, and it is also extremely wasteful. Junk mail uses up about 100 million trees every year in the US alone. This involves the use of a lot of energy both for making the junk mail, and delivering it to every residence across the country. This is the type of useless production and waste we simply cannot afford, and eliminating it is another obvious choice for reducing carbon emissions.

Housing is another area where we can make some big gains. Even though we are building new green houses, these are much larger than the average home from fifty years ago, and have an average of fewer people living in them. This means the efficiency savings are entirely offset by the larger sizes and greater use of resources by fewer people. In the short term, we need to stop building new homes, and instead focus on making existing smaller homes more efficient, and perhaps subdividing large homes into more residences or apartments. With the current housing glut from the real estate bubble, this should be another obvious choice.

There are two more changes that can be made and also have a big impact, but the importance here is more symbolic than practical. They will reduce emissions, but the message they send is likely more important. The first is NASCAR, perhaps the greatest symbol of waste for the sake of waste. Our tolerance of such blatant, unnecessary, excess sends a strong signal that we are happy to drive off the cliff. Eliminating it would send a much better signal that this sort of thing is no longer acceptable.

The other symbolic change is a bit more controversial. The Olympics generate a massive amount of carbon emissions. They also require a great deal of new construction of buildings and infrastructure in host cities, and cause other environmental damage. This is a time where we need to be scaling back and conserving, not expanding. Unlike NASCAR, the Olympics themselves are not useless and the promotion of sport is a good thing. However, such a global indulgence of excess and overconsumption is not something we can afford today, and it also sends the wrong message. We need to seriously consider a moratorium on future Olympics, and perhaps focus instead of local sport and competition. This would be difficult, but would send a very powerful international message. People of the world, and especially Americans, might actually stop and think: "If things are so bad that the Olympics are being cancelled, maybe we really do need urgent changes."

There is some low hanging fruit on the tree of climate change. There's not a lot of it, but our leaders are refusing to pick what's there for the taking. The measures discussed here need to be addressed urgently, and should be on the agenda at Copenhagen. If we cannot make the simple, obvious, choices that are needed, how can we ever expect to tackle the hard stuff? The time for dithering and weak excuses is over.

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