Contraction and convergence– the ultimate solution to carbon-dioxide emissions?

Dave Hampton
The ultimate solution to carbon-dioxide emissions needs to be both radical and simple — Dave Hampton.
The thought of all that carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels is a source of growing concern — for a growing number of people. DAVE HAMPTON believes the ultimate solution needs to be both radical and simple, and that ‘contraction and convergence’* is exactly that!We know that humankind cannot go on as it is now — unleashing billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, year after year, as ancient stores of precious fossil fuels are burned up. We are unlocking, seemingly as fast as we can, all the Earth’s treasure of amazing hydrocarbons from their multi-million-year store safely underground. Assets versus income We are downgrading our fuel store — our treasure — into Gigatonnes of invisible, but not quite harmless, carbon-dioxide gas. This is a classic case of trying to live off our assets instead of our income. Our ‘income’ in this sense is the energy we could derive from renewable sources; if it isn’t renewable, ultimately, we can’t go on using it! The air we all share can absorb all this extra carbon-dioxide gas, and has been for ages. It has been doing so, uncomplainingly, for a hundred years already. However, all the signs are that it just cannot carry on this way. The climate is changing. The miracle would be if it wasn’t. As we wake up to this reality, scientists are telling us that we are already past the point of no return! How do we react to this problem? Huge issue We can ignore this massive news, we can believe it, or we can disbelieve it. But it remains a huge issue, and one that will not go away just because we ignore it. One awkward twist is that all the people who do accept it can, understandably, get down, angry, or otherwise lose the plot. They can become bad company — and are then best avoided. But there is still hope! All this serious burning of fossil fuels started only a hundred years ago. Like Concorde, it can finish as fast as it started. If we are to survive, all nations have to agree to contract dramatically our total emissions of carbon dioxide. Tony Blair has got us off to a flying start by suggesting 60% cuts for the UK by 2050. This is way ahead of most other countries, but it is still not fast enough for scientists to be sure that we will survive as a species. New evidence from the Hadley Centre suggests that even this target may not be nearly enough. The convergence part is also non-negotiable. Once scientists have worked out how much carbon dioxide we can continue to release globally, common sense (and our common atmosphere) dictates that all nations start to converge until, in an ideal world, every country and, perhaps, every person, takes responsibility for its own share and limits its carbon-dioxide emissions to a rationed amount. That is essentially the process of the Kyoto Protocol. Growing awareness There is no other viable way forward. Common sense will prevail — once all the petty politics are exposed — if we wish to have a future. People are not stupid, and awareness is growing that carbon dioxide is a real-and-present danger of boggling proportions. The Government’s chief scientist recently stated that global warming was more of a threat than global terrorism. We are an amazingly inventive species, and we can avoid imminent disastrous climate disruption, but only if we acknowledge it is happening. Thankfully, initial ‘ration’ limits of carbon dioxide need not be uncomfortable. (It is important not to confuse tonnes of carbon with tonnes of carbon dioxide; they are different (44 tonnes of carbon dioxide counts as 12 tonnes of carbon). Although we need to rapidly contract down to an average of about 2 t of per capita, compared with 10 to 20 t per capita in the UK and USA now, carbon trading will make it possible to effectively ‘buy’ carbon credits from those who do not need or want them — thus redistributing wealth. More significantly, the tremendous force of creative innovation would be unleashed on solving the problem, and a whole range of exciting new products and solution would emerge. If we continue to value the atmosphere at zero, we have a problem. Cleverer ways As population grows, we just have to hope we hit on ever cleverer ways of producing carbon-free energy — and ways of doing more with less. Interestingly, although free sunlight falls on all of us, the countries best placed to benefit from capturing solar energy are those in the south. ‘Desert’-based hydrogen and electricity from plant driven by solar energy, which includes wind, are perfectly feasible if the will is there — and it very soon will be. Hold on to your hats. 2004 looks like being the year we all woke up to this, and the revolution has started. The low-carbon economy will soon be upon us, and if ‘carbon is the currency of the 21st Century’ as has been predicted, it will pay us to be part of the solution. Dave Hampton is a director of ABS Consulting, 6-8 Marshalsea Road, London SE1 1HL.
* Contraction and convergence is the name of a global solution that has been proposed by the Global Commons Institute (GCI). This solution is gaining growing support from leaders worldwide. The GCI site is: GCI is an independent group founded in 1990 and based in London. Its focus is the protection of the global commons of the global climate system. Since 1996 it has encouraged awareness of ‘contraction and convergence, which is GCI’s suggested international framework for sharing the arrest of global greenhouse gas emissions. The website details the concept and its growing support around the world.
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