Rhein on Energy and Climate

Our planet is in danger of being destroyed by human activity and made uninhabitable for human beings. This will be a long process that may take a few centuries before completion. But it is bound to happen if mankind continues to indulge in its present life style, which has become increasingly unsustainable.

For the very first time in human history, obesity, due to excessive eating and lack of exercise, has become a major health issue for hundreds of millions of people!

A minority of privileged human beings in the “West”, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, coastal China and parts of India have adopted and take for granted a life style, from air conditioning and central heating to daily rides on congested roads, business and vacation air trips around the world etc. that is not sustainable.

Very few are aware of global population increasing by the equivalent of one Germany every year and the cultivable land area shrinking every year because of desertification and ever growing urbanisation accompanied by the necessary infrastructure of roads, rails, power grids etc.

Equally few people are aware about the depletion of global fish stocks, fossil energy or phosphate reserves. Living in more or less comfortable high-rise buildings in Beijing, Chicago or Mumbai their main concern is to enjoy a good life and accumulate a small fortune for their children to live in even better conditions. But this will not be possible.

Quite a few among the older generation, who have lived through world War II, post-war poverty and the spectacular rise of material wealth during the second half of the 20thcentury are afraid that the future does not augur well for their children and grandchildren. They practice a more thrifty way of life, refusing to follow the latest fashion or innovation trends: an ageing global population might therefore put a lid on unrestrained “growth”. Unfortunately, it will take more than half a century before ageing will have become common across the world.

We need to act much sooner to preserve sustainable living conditions. Here are a few prescriptions of what should happen in the coming decades:

  • Create awareness, especially among the elites, that on a finite planet man has to restrain his appetite for ever more material “wealth” at the expense of animals and plants. Schools have to start disseminating such awareness from an early age on.
  • Stop emitting any green house gases by 2050 latest to prevent climate change and global warming from inundating large swaths of the earth’s coastal areas and destroying the basis of human civilisation. To that end, housing and offices should be such as not not to require fossil energy for warming or cooling; and all traffic should be independent from fossil energy inputs by 2050.
  • Teach every political leader and top government official the basics of climate science to help them better appreciate the uncontrollable risks ahead of us.
  • Raise the price of coal, oil and gas through effective taxation (carbon tax, cap and trade emission systems) to create proper incentives for higher energy efficiency and switching towards alternative energy sources.
  • Implement a radical change of the tax system by switching from income and property taxation to that of fossil energy, if necessary.
  • Make recycling of water, paper, metals, plastics and all other re-usable waste mandatory.
  • This set of actions will have to apply to all countries and societies on earth: butcountries with C02 per-capita emissions exceeding the world average of four tons (USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, Russia, EU, China, Singapore, etc.) will have to form the van-guard. That is a matter of global equity and solidarity.

This is an extremely ambitious programme. It has no chance of ever seeing the day as long as the UN will not be endowed with comprehensive powers of proposal and surveillance. The ghastly experience of 20 years of failed international climate policy under the auspices of a toothless UN should convince us of the need for a dramatic institutional change.

The EU should play a central role and take the initiative with a few like-minded partners and mobilise the international community.

Brussels 31.08. 2012 Eberhard Rhein

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