Rhein on Energy and Climate

The Final Declaration approved at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh proposes a framework for “strong, sustainable and balanced growth” as the basic paradigm for the 21st century.

But in the long term, global economic growth cannot be sustainable. It is bound to run into increasing ecological constraints.

A system is sustainable as long as it possesses the capacity of self-perpetuation, in ever changing forms. The Amazon tropical river basin, the Gulf Stream, the recurrence of monsoon rains or Greenland ice constitute sustainable systems.

The earth has been a sustainable system, until humanity began destroying it, at an accelerating pace, from 1850 onwards, through an unsustainable increase of population and production of goods.

Humanity is unwilling to realise the extent and speed with which the earth is losing its sustainability. It ignores the signals at the wall: rising number of disasters, unprecedented droughts in Africa and India, sand storms in Australia, rising intensity of tropical storms and the melting of the Arctic Ice.

Worse, it does not dare to visualise an earth with 10 billion human beings in 40 years, all of whom entitled to European standards of food, housing, clothing and energy, thereby contributing to growing land and water scarcity, depletion of vital resources and above all accelerating climate change. Humanity takes for granted the earth’s capacity to provide 10 billion human beings with sufficient energy, food and material comfort, though it is not capable of feeding even 6.8 billion people today.

We close our eyes to such inconsistencies. We are too busy with today’s priorities and leave to the following generations the answers to ever more difficult challenges –loss of biodiversity, climate change, pandemics, mass migration, water scarcity, loss of soil fertility, acidity of the oceans and, last not least, devastating climate change.

To restore the planet’s sustainability, if that is at all possible, humanity would need a radical reversal of its attitude to Nature: instead of dominating over Nature man needs to be again an integral part of it. Clearly, this is naïve. Modern man will not want to live like Buddhist monks.

But Humanity should be able to define two less radical answers to the progressive decline of global environmental sustainability:

Tackle population growth;

Address climate change.

It has tried to do so at the Cairo World Population Conference in 1995 and the Kyoto Climate Conference in 1997, but unsuccessfully, because governments behave globally irresponsible and short-sighted.

It would still be possible to slow down global population growth and stabilise the planet’s population just below 10 billion people.

The recipe would be simple: offer adequate mother and child healthcare, including contraceptives, to those 200 million women in poor countries who want to prevent new pregnancies. Such a programme might progressively reduce population growth from the present 80 million annually to zero.

But it will require a loud wake-up call to convince global leaders to take appropriate action, including putting up the modest financial resources for its implementation

It would be equally possible to slow down climate change if humanity succeeded in mobilising business to invest massively in fuel efficiency and non-fossil energies.

Tackling population growth and climate change have one thing in common: From a critical moment onwards, the “tipping point” they will go out of control and leave humanity with dire consequences: hunger, wars, floods, droughts, mass migration.

Humanity therefore has no time to waste. It must focus its efforts on population and climate if it wants to avoid a catastrophe towards the end this century or the beginning of the 22nd century.

At Pittsburgh, the world leaders had to concentrate on repairing the damage from the financial catastrophe. They had no other choice.

But at every future G20 meeting they should review the long-term environmental sustainability of the planet. In view of the G20 meeting in France in 2011, a group of eminent earth scientists should prepare a comprehensive action plant on how to best maintain global environmental sustainability until the end of the century.

Brussels 01. 10.09 Eberhard Rhein

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