Monday, 21 September 2009

Breathing Room

Most of the news that comes to us from the climate change front lines is alarming. Over the last few years greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures have continued their upward trend. Emissions have risen so much over the past decade that what used to be considered a worst-case scenario is now our most probable future.

But the future is not cast in stone - at least not yet. As reported in the Financial Times, the International Energy Administration (IEA) has found that global CO2 emissions had fallen faster in the past year than any year over the past four decades.

In one sense, the IEA report is a good-news-bad news-story. CO2 can stay in the atmosphere for a hundred years or more, so lower emissions mean a lower overall concentration of greenhouse gases. And that means less warming in the future. The bad news is that much of the reduction we are seeing is due to economic pain.

Emissions fall when factories reduce output, businesses go bankrupt and workers lose their jobs. As we noted in a blog post several months ago, the last thing we want to do is reinforce the perception that lower CO2 emisisons means financial misery. It is this perception that makes it so hard for governments to negotiate a climate change treaty that will help us achieve the ambitious global cuts that are needed to forestall dangerous warming in the future. The recent reductions are not nearly enough to stave off the worst effects of climate change, so a global agreement remains the order of the day.

There has, however, been another effect from the economic recession. Not only have existing factories and power plants reduced their output, but a large amount of new construction has been put on hold. New coal-fired power plants have an operational life of fifty years or more, so a decision to launch a new fossil fueled power station would lock us into decades of carbon-intensive energy production - at a time when we should be moving in the opposite direction.

Postponing construction of these power stations gives us some breathing room. We're not committed yet. There's still time to choose an alternate path, preferably one that doesn't lock us into a worst-case scenario of spiraling emissions and environmental misery.

Many renewable energy and energy efficiency investments have also been hit by the economic crisis, but not everything has ground to a halt. We continue to learn more about how our carbon emissions affect the climate, and about the likely impacts of climate change on planet and people. We continue to learn more about promising technologies and approaches that reduce the tradeoff between helping the environment and securing a decent quality of life. And we learn that governments are taking climate change seriously - regulations will force businesses to factor the cost of carbon into their business decisions. Each new piece of information reinforces the knowledge that we can and must do more - not less - to cut emissons.

So one possible silver lining to the recent economic pain is that it has given us an opportunity to make more informed decisions and hopefully avoid making long term decisions we might eventually come to regret.

The future is not cast in stone. As the economy recovers and the investment climate improves, let's use what we've learned to re-evaluate our options and make faster progress towards a lower-carbon future.

(Back to the Carbon Clear website)