Rhein on Energy and Climate

2010 marks a new record in global C02 emissions. They totalled 30.6 Gigatons, 6 percent more than in 2009, when global economic activity suffered from the financial cataclysm in USA and Europe.

According to IEA estimates, C02 emissions must absolutely peak at a level of 32 Gigatons by 2020. If they fail to do so it will no longer be possible to contain the rise of global temperature within two centigrade, considered as the maximum tolerable to prevent devastating changes of living conditions for the majority of human beings on our planet.

It is evident that humanity will miss that target. It would require global consumption of fossil energy to stagnate until 2020 and decline thereafter, something impossible to achieve in view of the continued political preference attached to higher living standards and low energy prices everywhere on earth with the exception of the EU.

The new data on C02 emissions have to be seen in the context of accelerating climate change that is becoming increasingly visible across the world.

Three regions illustrate this during the five months of 2011:

  • The northern parts of Europe have witnessed their driest and warmest spring since decades. In Germany it has been drier than ever during the last 100 years. The EU grain harvest will shrink, with estimates ranging for a decline between 4 and 6 percent and a fall-out of up to 20 percent for rape seed.
  • Central China has seen the lowest rainfall in at least 50 years, letting large stretches of the Yangtze without adequate water and making it necessary to draw massively on the the Three Gorges Lake.
  • The USA has suffered from an extraordinarily violent tornado and hurricane season with considerable damage to buildings and physical infrastructure.

Despite the rising evidence of a causal link between the accumulation of C02 emissions in the atmosphere and climate change the majority of politicians and citizens remain unimpressed and refuse to establish such a connection. Many, in particular in the USA, squarely deny any correlation between our way of life and the greater frequency of severe natural catastrophes. The media also fail to go beyond reporting of the non-connected facts.

As a consequence the costs of burning fossil energy for the global environment and, increasingly, for private property, insurance premiums and public budgets remain hidden.

We should not expect normal citizens to understand the complex relationship between our way of life, the rising consumption of fuel and gasoline, the more frequent occurrence of natural catastrophes and the rising costs resulting from such catastrophes the need to adapt to a warmer climate. They cannot either be expected to look far into the future and understand how the lives of their grandchildren will be affected by our present life-style.

But we should expect statesmen, who deserve that title, to understand the inter-connections, look far ahead and take preventive action today. The German exit from nuclear power by 2022, though not directly related to climate change, constitutes such a courageous political act. So does the decision of the European Council to move towards an essentially carbon-free society by the middle of the century.

But where are similarly courageous and strategical decisions in the USA, Australia, Canada or Japan ? It is up to the West to take its responsibility and show China, India and all emerging countries the way they will have to go with some delay that should be as short as possible.


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