Jun 2006

Are We Changing Planet Earth?

The first target of my freshly loaded scatter-gun is, I’m sorry to say, David Attenborough. Or rather, the second programme in his latest series; Are We Changing Planet Earth?

I should point out that I’m a big fan of David Attenborough. The Blue Planet ranks high amongst the best things ever to grace a television screen, and over the years Attenborough has probably done as much for conservation and environmentalism as any individual. After all, it’s only by making the public aware of what they stand to lose that they will ever be motivated to change their ways.

His latest programme, Are We Changing Planet Earth? is a two-parter dealing with the issue of climate change, and specifically human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change. In part one, Attenborough revealed that he’d long been sceptical of the claims being made about anthropogenic climate change but that eventually the evidence provided by climatologists had become – to his eyes – utterly compelling. He presented that evidence in an easily-digestible format and by the end of the first episode had done a fine job of demonstrating that anthropogenic climate change is in fact occurring.

Episode one ended with a question; “What can we do about it?”; and the promise that episode two would answer that question.

But it didn’t. Or rather, it provided the wrong answer. Wrong by quite a margin.

I don’t know how much of the second episode was intended as sugar-coating; an attempt to get the ball moving by taking a resolutely optimistic stance and preaching business-as-(almost)-usual. Did Attenborough make an editorial decision “not to be depressing”? In a world where half of us seem to be on anti-deps, perhaps that’s unsurprising. But it’s also dishonest.

Let’s get something straight… there’s a lot of depressing shit going on right now. We can decide to hide behind denial and prozac, but that doesn’t make the shit go away. Indeed it tends to reinforce it and encourage it to multiply.

Attenborough presented a seven-point plan which aimed at ensuring that carbon emissions remain static between now and 2050. Right now, here in 2006, emissions are the highest they have ever been. Having spent an episode and a quarter revealing the damage already done and underway as a result of anthropogenic climate change, it was mind-boggling that he then chose to imply that 2006 emission levels were hunky dory.

Even worse, the seven-point plan didn’t make any sense. There was a recommendation to increase the amount of electricity generated by nuclear power by a factor of three. As I’ve pointed out before, estimates of remaining uranium reserves talk about another 50 or so years at current rates of consumption. Trebling that rate would – presumably – reduce the lifespan of nuclear power to roughly 17 years. Even if we double the known reserves (i.e. discover as much uranium ore between now and 2050 as we know currently exists), we still only get to 2040 before our reserves are depleted. What then?

And what about the carbon emitted by the construction of almost a thousand new reactors? And the threefold increase in uranium mining, processing and transportation? Are these numbers factored into the total “saving”? One number that isn’t factored in, of course, is what level of carbon emissions will be generated by the systems used to deal with the waste during the next 10 millennia. Perhaps it’s minimal… but we simply don’t know; so any claim that nuclear energy provides a net reduction in carbon emissions over the longterm is plainly dishonest.

The programme made much of the disintegration of Antarctic ice-shelves and the melting of the Greenland pack ice and Patagonian glaciers… processes that are still accelerating as a result of carbon emissions from the past couple of decades. Any plan, therefore, to stabilise emissions at current – historically high – levels is surely, by definition, too little too late.

Another of the seven points presented by Attenborough was the switch to fuel-efficient cars, along with a 50% reduction in our use of those cars. If we had a couple of generations in which to wean people off their cars, then this might be a sensible idea. But it’s just too damn late for mollycoddling motorists – the despoilers of our planet. Almost 50% of the carbon emissions produced by any private car (fuel-efficient or not) occur prior to the tank being filled for the first time. That’s right; half the carbon produced by your new car was produced before you bought it.

So you’ll understand why I balk at the idea of massively increasing demand for new cars. It’s music to the ears of the auto industry of course, but it just sounds like noise to me. Had Attenborough’s programme made all the same points (even the nuclear nonsense) but simply included a couple of lines about the basic unsustainability of the private car then this article would never have been written. But instead we have a programme that talks about purchasing new cars that get 60 miles to the gallon, and using them less. All in order to keep our carbon emissions at levels already causing significant shifts in our climate.

It makes no sense.

Of course, Attenborough should be praised for further raising the profile of this important issue. And most of his seven points were eminently sensible suggestions… greater energy efficiency in our homes (10% of our electricity is wasted by TVs and stereos left on standby)… a major expansion of wind power… a reduction in air travel. All good ideas whose time is already long overdue. But I am increasingly frustrated by those who suggest that a few minor tweaks to our absurdly energy-intensive lifestyle will solve the problem of anthropogenic climate change. That’s just not good enough.

So, off the top of my head, here’s my own 7-point plan to combat climate change:

  1. Halt all investment in both nuclear and fossil-fuel powered electricity generation (China is planning on building 50 new coal-fired power stations every year for the next two decades. Scary, huh?)
  2. Massively increase investment in wind and tide power generation. Allow individuals to offset the increase in electricity costs by all the efficiency measures discussed by Attenborough in his programme.
  3. Announce a tenfold increase in car tax, road tax, road tolls and petrol tax. The increases will occur 3 months after the announcement to allow people to plan for a drastic reduction in car use. Announce that these taxes will be increased by a similar rate year-on-year. Implement a similar tax on jet fuel.
  4. Invest heavily in public transport, but also in localisation strategies so that people don’t need to travel as far.
  5. Legislate so that all new homes are built to the Passivhaus standard.
  6. Legislate so that no electronic equipment may be manufactured with a standby mode.
  7. Pass laws which stipulate that a percentage of all produce stocked in a store must be sourced from within 50 miles of that store. This percentage to increase year-on-year.

Remember, these are off the top of my head, but I nonetheless guarantee that they’d make genuine inroads into dealing with the problem of anthropogenic climate change. Unlike Attenborough’s seven points. Which – at best – will keep things static… a non-solution.

Posted in: Opinion