Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Don't Be Afraid to Think Big

Last month the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme jointly announced that the ozone hole has stabilised.  More specifically, the thinning observed since the 1970s in the high altitude layer of ozone that protects us from ultraviolet radiation has stopped and the hole is beginning to recover.  The ozone layer outside of polar regions is expected to return to pre-1980 levels before 2050, with the polar regions recovering a few decades later.

The story earned a few newspaper headlines the day after it was announced, and then disappeared without a trace.

In reality, this is tremendous good news.  Policy makers and environmental advocates should be shouting from the rooftops.  After all, how often do we get to report that an environmental problem is getting better?

There's another encouraging story here.  It's that concerted global action to tackle environmental challenges works.

In 1987 the nations of the world came together to enact the Montreal Protocol. The Montreal Protocol  represented an historic attempt to phase out entire classes of industrial gases- chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), halons, and methyl bromide - used in everything  from refrigerators and fire extinguishers to hairspray and pesticides.

Wealthy industrialised nations agreed to strict targets for the phaseout, while developing countries were given more leeway before their cuts began.  At the time, industry lobbyists argued against the science of the thinning ozone and complained about the cost of compliance.

But we held firm.  All 196 nations ratified the treaty, and the Montreal Protocol came into force.  There was no economic catastrophe - the costs of transitioning to less harmful gases were much lower than anticipated.  And the ozone layer has begun to recover.  Without the Montreal Protocol unabated destruction of the ozone layer was projected to result, in the words of UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, "...up to 20 million more cases of skin cancer and 130 million more cases of eye cataracts, not to speak of damage to human immune systems, wildlife and agriculture."  Fortunately, that threat seems to be receding.

This isn't the first time that we've come together across boundaries to solve major environmental problems.  In the 1970s and 1980s, SO2 emissions from power plants and factories caused acid rain and damaged forests  and waterways in North America and Europe.  Regional trading progammes were launched with strict emissions caps - again over the protests of vested interests who argued that the rules would be unaffordable and cost  thousands of jobs.  The cap and trade programme designers argued that their scheme would achieve  environmental targets at the lowest possible cost to the environment.

And it worked.  Acid rain is largely a thing of the past in industrialised countries, and the cost of compliance was only a fraction of what industry has predicted.

The Montreal Protocol and the regional SO2 trading schemes show what can be accomplished when we're not afraid to think big.  The Kyoto Protocol, national cap and trade legislation in the United States and Australia, and the erstwhile Copenhagen conference last December represented similar efforts.

But we seem to have lost our courage.

The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, and prospects for its replacement seem uncertain.  Christiana Figueres, the UNFCC head with whom I worked back in the 1990s, says there won't be a single big agreement to replace Kyoto - the parties simply can't agree. Meanwhile, legislators admit that US climate change legislation is dead in the water, and the Australian government is rapidly backtracking on their climate change plans.  Opponents, sensing blood in the water, are now attacking regional and state-level climate change initiatives in the United States, arguing that fighting climate change will cost jobs.

Big problems call for ambitious solutions.  We took bold, concerted action when CFCs and other chemicals threatened the ozone layer.  We took similarly bold action when acid rain threatened our lakes and streams.  Climate change is an even bigger problem than either of these and yet we fret about the cost and struggle to come to agreement.

When did we become so timid?  How did we become afraid to think big?

We know the nature of the challenge facing us, and we know what needs to be done.  It's time to face our  fears, roll up our sleeves, and get started on the path on the road to a low carbon economy.

(Carbon Clear homepage)