Climate is changing, from chastity to commodity

Rocket science of my granny

Almost quarter a century ago, when I was in my primary school, pencil collection used to be my hobby. Rather than using them for writing purposes, it was for mere fun that I used to buy variety of pencils. However, that hobby did not last long, thanks to the restrictions of my granny on the things that I was allowed to have and have not. Though I could afford to buy them, with the few pennies of pocket money from my father, I was not allowed to do so under the strict supervision of my granny. Her reasoning was: it is a waste of material and (everybody's) natural resources – waste of (my) time – waste of (my father's) money. All I could derive from her logic at that time was, that she was being stingy and a miserly person. It took couple of decades for me to decode that rocket science. By the way, her educational qualification was primary school, until grade 2.

Al Gore, the Harvard graduate – the Nobel prize winner for Peace, for drawing some flow charts and power point presentations on global warming, has pretty much tried to explain the same rocket science in an elaborative manner in his documentary. While what my granny tried to teach me was to respect the Nature in its chastity, Al Gore's inconvenient loot tries to preach how to use climate as a commodity, which can be traded on the stock market – in order to save the planet. It is, after all, up to each individual either to have blind religious faith towards/against global warming, or to believe in the fact that respecting Nature's ecological balance is a fundamental duty of humanity.

Blinding deals instead of binding agreements

The recently held United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen was a glaring example of how legally binding agreements can be sidestepped in order to make blinding deals behind the doors with a chosen few players. In other words, a match fixing. There is a bit of history behind the sham of Copenhagen conference.

When the first conference on climate change was held in Rio de Janeiro (Earth Summit, 1992), a broad range of issues were discussed and a general consensus was formed that there should be a legally binding framework in place to address the impacts of environmental damage caused by human activity. Then came the legally binding Kyoto protocol, which was the consensus of UNFCCC held in Kyoto – Japan, in 1997, aimed at combating global warming. As per this protocol, the industrialized countries that are historically responsible for the problem should take the first steps by drastically reducing their green house gases in a time-bound manner. However, no country that is a signatory of this protocol has fulfilled its responsibility. Except for some European countries, most others have not even taken Kyoto protocol seriously. After the US showed its middle finger to the Kyoto protocol in 2001, it was Canada's turn to follow suit in 2006. While the US had forthrightly rejected  even ratifying the Kyoto protocol in its senate, Canada was the only country that ratified the deal and then blatantly announced that it was abandoning its targets to cut Green House Gases (GHGs) as per the protocol regulations. Canada was meant to have cut emissions by 6% between 1990 and 2012. Instead they have already risen by 26%.

Kyoto protocol is not ending in 2012. It is the 'phase' of the kyoto protocol which ends in 2012. It is the industrialized countries which are obliged to reduce their emissions, that phase ends first. Copenhagen is about coming up with the second phase of the Kyoto protocol, where the results of the first phase were to be assessed and then come up with the specifications for the second phase based on the current status of the world. However, Copenhagen turned out to be a back door slugfest among various players of this global game.

Kyoto deal? What's that!? This was the attitude employed by the industrialized nations, as an attempt to replace the legally binding Kyoto protocol, where these nations are obliged to have drastic cuts on GHGs to reach their emission targets, which apparently they could not. The US, Europe, Japan, Australia and Canada are desperate to move to a one-track approach, where every country is supposed to flatly reduce its emissions without taking the population numbers into consideration, but developing and poor nations refused to kill off the Kyoto protocol that allows a sense of fair play. How ridiculous an argument can get when an average American who emits 20 times more than an average Indian, to be held equally responsible for their carbon footprint and are subjected to reduce their emission levels on an equal footing!? How can one switch off the light bulb one doesn’t have!? As the Conference Of Parties (COP) within the UNFCCC operate on consensus, any opposition to a proposal means that passage is impossible. Five countries – Venezuela, Sudan, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba – rejected the Copenhagen accord outright. Therefore this Copenhagen accord turns out to be more of a meeting minutes rather than an agreement worth its paper.

Climate Change is Cliché, Carbon Credits are Cool

That is how the global warming phenomenon might eventually end up, as a commodity market to trade the carbon credits for profits rather than handling the issue of climate change as a fundamental duty. I am not surprised to see the apparent division between the developed and the developing worlds at the negotiating table of climate conferences, with the debate reducing to the fundamental issue of cause and effect. While the developed world is harping on the negative effects of climate change and how green technologies can help to contain further damage, the developing world is arguing against those who caused the problem in the first place to be held responsible for their acts and pay the climate reparations. If the French and British insisted on Germany to take all the burden and pay the war reparations through the Treaty of Versailles, then shouldn't a similar logic be applied to the industrialized countries to take the burden and pay the climate reparations for their reckless environmental plundering? One might argue that it is a recipe for disaster, as that treacherous Treaty of Versailles had eventually led to another world war. However, one should not forget that while equitable demands for reparation are not illegitimate, duplicitous demands in the form of unscrupulous deals are illegitimate and end up in hot waters.

The simplest way to reduce carbon emissions is to put a direct cap on the mining of coal, gas and other fossil fuels from the Earth. These raw materials are mined out for the sole reason of burning them as fuels, which eventually releases GHGs into the atmosphere. Every barrel of oil and tonne of coal that comes to the surface will be burnt. Therefore, why not leave those fossil fuels as they are and concentrate on renewable energy that can be tapped from solar, wind, ocean currents etc. Is it not the most simple and cost-effective solution to prevent the burning of fossil fuels!? Well, but this is not what Al Gore, the oil & coal companies, market forces think. They want to deal carbon footprint as a commodity in stock markets in terms of carbon credits. In simple language, a carbon credit is created when the equivalent of one metric tonne of carbon dioxide is prevented from entering the atmosphere. In other words, suppose a big tree (remember trees capture carbon!) has 100 kgs of carbon captured in it, then 10 such trees constitute one carbon credit. For example, a corporation like General Motors can simply lease the vast forests of American hinterlands, and then claim that they offset their carbon emissions with the carbon credits they secure from those trees.

Al gore's algorithm says it all, "I accept that my lifestyle requires me to leave a larger carbon footprint, but then, I compensate it by purchasing carbon credits". According to an article published in the Business Week, Gore’s mansion (20-room, 8-bathroom) located in the posh Belle Meade area of Nashville, consumes more electricity every month than the average American household uses in an entire year, according to the Nashville Electric Service. In his documentary, he calls on Americans to conserve energy by reducing electricity consumption at home. While the average household in America consumes 10,656 kilowatt-hours (kwh) per year, according to the Department of Energy, in 2006, Gore devoured nearly 221,000 kwh – more than 20 times the national average. Since the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Gore’s energy consumption has increased from an average of 16,200 kwh per month in 2005, to 18,400 kWh per month in 2006. So much for the climate preacher's inconvenient loot.

Walk the Talk

Let me shift the focus towards some compelling questions, which I did not come across in any climate debates or discussions. What is the total figure of GHG emissions across the world in terms of various sectors? What proportion of the total GHG emissions does the agriculture/food sector constitute, including the manufacturing of fertilizers, pesticides and food processing etc.? What is the proportion of industrial sector, ranging from toothbrush to condoms? And, what proportion of this total GHG emissions does the military weaponry, ranging from manufacturing them to using them in wars, across the world constitute? Which of these sectors should be given top priority to clamp down the production lines??

Though there are no rigorous studies done on these lines, Prof. Barry Sanders, in his book titled "The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of the Military", has articulated his findings on the environmental costs inflicted upon the world by the US military. He starts off with trying to figure out how much fossil fuel the military uses, with their resulting GHG emissions. As per his conservative estimates, the US military spread across the world uses 20 million gallons of oil a day. As each gallon of gasoline produces 20 pounds of CO2, the combined US armed forces send 400 million pounds of GHGs into the atmosphere every day. That totals about 146 billion pounds, or 73 million tons, of carbon a year. And that is just about the 'fuel usage'. To bring this into perspective, the 1.5 million American troops consume more oil than the national consumption of countries like Iran (population of 66 million) and Indonesia (population of 235 million).

Another interesting factor that struck me recently was the way humanity happily pumps millions of tons of gasses into the atmosphere at the turn of every year. Perhaps new year's eve is only once-a-year phenomenon across the world, but every society/nation might have many such firework orgies at different times of the year as part of their celebrations on various occasions. If we give a closer look at this issue, there are many direct and indirect consequences. The direct impact of using the fireworks is the consumption of (fuel)energy to manufacture them, and then the emissions emanating from burning those toxic chemicals in the name of fun. The indirect impacts are the following:

  1. Fire accidents of properties, and thereby eventual burning of those materials
  2. Energy (water/electricity/anti-flammable materials) consumed by the fire personnel to douse off the fires
  3. Fire accidents of people, and thereby eventual health hazards
  4. Energy consumed by the patients in terms of medical care
  5. Debris littered all over, and the energy consumed by the cleaning efforts

The fundamental problem with this climate hypocricy is that everybody wants to first have their own share of fun, and then talk leasurely about the problem that is not in front of their eyes. In a market controlled economy every economic activity is considered to be benificial. No matter even if the economic activity has social harm, it is still added – not subtracted – from the social good. For example, as Prof. Partha Dasgupta points out, a train crash which generates 1 billion Euros worth of track repairs, medical bills and funeral costs is deemed as beneficial as an uninterrupted service which generates 1 billion Euros in ticket sales.

To be, or not to be

Basically the debate leads to the fundamental issue of whether being spendthrift consumer-based-society makes sense, or being thrifty savings-based-society makes sense. In a consumer based society, there is always a push from the invisible market forces on the people to buy more – therefore produce more – therefore expand the market – therefore expand the production much more – therefore consume the natural resources even more. This style of economy apparently starts with consumption (of the natural resources) and ends with consumption (by the customer), without any real checks and balances that concern nature and its ecology. The concern for wasteful usage of natural resources hardly comes into the picture, and even when it does it might eventually end up into another process of commodity trade for virtual consumption, e.g. Futures, Carbon Credits etc.

On the other hand, in a savings-based thrifty society, people would still try to have all the necessities for a decent life, because no body would sacrifice basic amenities in order to save money. But they do not motivate themselves to spend their hard earnings for luxuries, instead they try to save/invest it to make more money. Needless to say that the main motivation of these people is not for altruistic purposes but to make more money and be on the safer side when they reach autumn of their lives. This thrifty nature creates a safety net to the entire family and comes in aid at the hour of need. However, there is also a negative side for this kind of lifestyle. The more the people try to save their earnings, the smaller the economic activity turns out to be on the whole. When unemployment gets higher due to this decreased economic activity, then there is a need to stimulate the economy. Unfortunately, in the industrialized era that we are living today, governments in most parts of the world have adopted a rule of thumb, economic stimulus = encourage consumption. As a significant amount of human occupation is moving towards industrialized sector, it is hardly surprising that the eventual outcome would lead to environmental impacts. However hard we try to reduce our consumption levels, there are billions of people out there who would dearly want to increase theirs for a better living. This is simply, the law of nature.

While I see that the past has turned out to be a great history lesson where thrifty attitude of non-spending had indirectly benefited the ecology, I could now understand the merits of my granny's logic and advice. When I think that the present is turning into a situation where my unmindful consumption is indirectly affecting the world, I can hear that my mind is advising me to be mindful of what I consume. If I believe that the future turns out to be that two children of mine would have to fight against two children of the other family, in order to secure the resources (food/shelter/employment) for a decent living, then I'm sure my heart and mind would advise me to have only one child, at least to minimize the slugfest.

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