Monday, 26 May 2008

We Can Do More

Tackling climate change requires large reductions in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. The popular idea is that reducing emissions to the extent required - sixty percent or more - will be so painful and difficult that we need to phase the changes in gradually over the next four or five decades.

But is this true? Do we really have to wait until 2050 to get to a low-carbon economy?

In my last blog post we discussed the idea of "climate wedges" - a range of modest measures that rely on existing technology. Taken together these small "wedges" can cut society's carbon footprint by a massive amount.

It doesn't have to take long. When an avalanche near Juneau, Alaska in April destroyed the city's main electricity transmission lines, the utility switched to expensive backup generators. Residents' utility bills soared 400% and the switch began immediately.

The local library realised there was no need to keep to elevators (lifts) running, and took one out of service. The local hardware store quickly ran out of clothes pins as people abandoned their clothes dryers in favour of line-drying their laundry - even though it rains over 200 days per year. Households replaced every incandescent bulb they could with low-energy compact fluorescents. For show-and-tell, schoolchildren give presentations about how much energy they are saving at home.

The city of Juneau, Alaska cut its electricity consumption by more tha 30% in just a few weeks.

Weeks, not years. With existing technology and no earth-shattering lifestyle changes.

The residents of Juneau are no different from anyone else. If they - and we - can achieve this type of carbon reduction in less than a month, imagine what we can do in forty years.

Friday, 23 May 2008

U.S. Declares Polar Bears an Endangered Species

It's official.

After years of wrangling, the U.S. Department of the Interior has declared polar bears an endangered species. As climate change causes the polar ice to dwindle, the bears' natural habitat has come under increasing pressure and it becomes more difficult for them to hunt for food.

This ruling was not a knee-jerk response to public affection for large, furry mammals. The current Interior Department leadership has not been keen to extend the Endangered Species Act to new contexts, nor to acknowledge the need for immediate action on climate change. As Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne remarked days earlier,
“When the Endangered Species Act was adopted in 1973, I don’t think terms like 'climate change' were part of our vernacular.”

However, when forced by a judge to make an objective assessment of the polar bears' predicament, the choice was clear. Again quoting Kempthorne:

“This has been a difficult decision...But in light of the scientific record and the restraints of the inflexible law that guides me, [it was] the only decision I could make...”

The new ruling by itself won't lead to faster action on greenhouse gas reductions. The Endangered Species Act requires immediate remedial action if, for example, a construction site threatens the habitat of a rare plant or animal. But the link between greenhouse gas emissions and habitat loss are more indirect, and longer term. It is difficult to point to a smokestack or tailpipe and prove that cutting those specific emissions will protect the polar bears' habitat.

Nevertheless, this ruling is important. It is a formal acknowledgement from a particularly sceptical source that climate change is having a real and measurable impact on the world around us.

The debate is over. Now it's time to achieve significant carbon reductions. The Carbon Clear team will help you get started.