How To Heal the Air
Although we are aware
of climate change, we make little connection to our own energy-profligate lives, both personally and in the workplace. Four
key actions could make a world of difference.
Because the air is largely
unseen, often referred to as mere "empty space," we don't even notice it. We believe that the atmosphere is a "dead" and accidental
mixture of inert gases. We forget that the air that we breathe and share has been built up over billions of years by bacteria,
to support and sustain our living planet.
We need reminding that
carbon has continuously been sucked out of the atmosphere and buried in limestone, chalk, coal, oil and gas deposits by huge
natural processes in order for life to multiply and survive.
Now we are reversing that
process by digging and drilling huge amounts of these fossil fuels from beneath the Earth's crust, then burning them in our
power stations, vehicles, aircraft, and industrial processes. The resulting increase in carbon dioxide is changing the atmosphere
at "a speed and magnitude unprecedented to our knowledge, aside from large meteorite impacts," according to climate scientist
Peter Barrett of the Antarctic Research
Center in New Zealand.
In the last 30 years the
scientific community has made huge strides in understanding how the atmosphere works. It is now clear that carbon dioxide,
the main greenhouse gas, is exchanged between the atmosphere, the oceans and the forests in a complex dance.
It is undisputed that
we are belching twice as much of this unseen gas into the atmosphere as natural sinks like forests and oceans can absorb.
The result is global warming, increased extreme climate events, more flooding, longer droughts and rising sea levels. There
is even the possibility of dramatic changes like the collapse of the Gulf Stream.
But regrettably the basic
understanding of the carbon cycle is unknown to most people. Although we are aware of climate change, in reality we make little
connection to our own energy-profligate lives, both personally and in the workplace. Our links with the natural world have
So what is to be done
to heal the air? How can we start to live within the constraints of the only living planet we know? I believe there are four
key actions that need to be taken:
--Greenhouse gas targets
must be set by the scientists;
--A low-carbon culture
must be introduced;
--Everything should be
--Carbon must become the
currency of the 21st century.
Setting the targets
The targets set at Kyoto by the political community might be a useful first step. But if
these are set within a framework of political negotiations they will only scratch the surface. As Andrew Simms of the New
Economics Foundation says, "You don't negotiate how far to build a bridge across a canyon."
Nevertheless the UK government, for instance, has shown genuine leadership
by setting a 60 percent reduction target for CO2 by 2050. Unfortunately the latest predictions from the UK's Hadley Center
suggest that even the UK target is not
sufficient. I believe therefore that we will not succeed in this task without getting climate scientists themselves, without
interference from outside vested interests and politicians, to set targets which will protect the atmosphere.
We need a rapid culture
change around the globe, sparked by a huge communication initiative which is transformed by a new way of seeing ourselves
within rather than outside the environment.
The biologist E. O. Wilson
writes: "The more closely we identify ourselves with the rest of life, the more quickly we will be able to discover the sources
of human sensibility and acquire the knowledge on which an enduring ethic, a sense of preferred direction, can be built."
If the world can be persuaded
by advertising and marketing to buy Coca-Cola or Nike, surely those same resources can be used to get this message across.
A key way to make the
culture change easier is for people to be aware of the carbon content in goods and services that they buy. Within months of
mandatory CO2/km labels on new cars in the UK
every manager in the country was aware of the carbon-implications of their vehicle fleet. Tax bands are now based on these
figures, giving incentives to drivers to opt for the most efficient vehicles.
There is no reason why
every rail and air travel ticket shouldn't show a CO2 figure. Buildings, which account for 50 percent of our carbon emissions,
should be rated just like refrigerators and freezers. Landlords neglecting to insulate their existing buildings efficiently,
or to build low-carbon new buildings, would be penalized by the marketplace. Carbon labels need to be as common as barcodes.
Carbon as currency
The final plank in the
transition to a genuinely low-carbon future will take place when we invent a new currency. A recent report, Carbon UK, says that "carbon will be the currency of the
Although carbon trading
is starting to happen with large commercial energy users, it needs to happen at a personal level too. I believe that every
person on the planet should be issued with a carbon allocation. What could be fairer? If a person wishes to jet off to distant
sunspots or drive a huge car, that's fine. They'll just have to pay the going rate for someone else's carbon – there
will be plenty of people in the Third World who would be happy to sell their allocations
at the market rate.
This is similar to the
concept of "contraction and convergence," devised by Aubrey Meyer of The Global Commons Institute, but worked through banks
and NGOs at a personal rather than governmental level.
Ultimately we have to
rethink our attitude and our relationship to this planet. We can never "hold dominion" over nature as Descartes believed.
We need a new relationship based on reverence for the natural world. The transition to a low-carbon future can be creative
and fun. James Lovelock, in his book "Gaia," has likened industrial human behavior to that of a pathogenic micro-organism:
We have grown in numbers
to the point where our presence is perceptibly disabling the planet like a disease. As in human diseases there are four possible
outcomes: destruction of the invading disease organisms; chronic infection; destruction of the host; or symbiosis –
a lasting relationship of mutual benefit to the host and invader.
I believe that we have
the capacity to choose symbiosis over self-destruction. But we need a rapid, massive and global awakening at a personal level
if we are not to go the way of any disease successfully thwarted by its host.
Antony Turner is project manager
for the Business & Sustainability courses at Schumacher
College, and director of CarbonSense.