Tuesday 8 December 2009

Copenhagen is about carbon, not climate (UPI Asia)

M.D. Nalapat

Manipal, India — Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore may have lost his bid for the U.S. presidency, but he did beat current President Barack Obama into the Nobel laureates’ club as the 2007 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of climate change awareness.

He is also on track to become a "carbon billionaire" by investing in companies that will see revenue and profits zoom as a direct consequence of the carbon-specific measures that he champions.

Watching television channels or reading the world’s major newspapers, one may be forgiven for thinking that it is the carbon generated by manufacturing and transport that is causing global warming. But such a view would be false. Actually, it is the so-called "carbon equivalents,” primarily methane, that are responsible for much of the current increases in greenhouse gases.

The human diet is an important reason why so much methane is being generated. Each kilogram of beef uses up about 10 pounds of grain, not to mention 2,500 gallons of potable water. Lamb is even more wasteful of these precious substances than beef. Livestock developed for food consume seven times more grain than the human population of the United States, for example.

There is on average about 30 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent released by every kilogram of beef consumed, even before more energy is expended in cooking the meat. This makes the world's livestock industry a much more deadly emitter of greenhouse gases than the much-discussed transportation industry. Hence, a true carbon warrior must do more than just cancel a flight now and then and switch to videoconferencing; it would be better to switch from meat to a vegetarian diet.

Understandably, this is an aspect of global warming that Al Gore has been reluctant to touch upon, even though it has been placed at the core of climate concerns by R.K. Pachauri, who headed the U.N. Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change before relocating to Columbia University in New York. This is not surprising given the propensity for consuming meat in Al Gore’s social milieu, as opposed to the vegetarian-friendly ethos of Pachauri's social background.

Amazingly, even as non-carbon emissions are expected to double by 2050 from their already dangerous levels, the focus at Copenhagen will only be on carbon. Of course this will translate into substantial business for nuclear and other non-coal and oil energy technologies.

In fact, the planting of trees on land and the introduction of fresh seaweed into the oceans would together ensure a much greater positive effect on the environment than the measly caps on carbon emissions being discussed at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Trees would convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, while seaweed would in like fashion increase the capacity of the oceans to absorb carbon.

At present, this capacity is nearing its saturation point, as evidenced by the accelerating extinction of soft-shelled sea creatures unable to survive in their carbon-suffused ocean habitat. However, neither planting trees nor filling the oceans with seaweed would generate corporate profits on the scale of nuclear power plants and expensive "green" technologies.

Currently hundreds of millions of well-fed livestock, awaiting their turn at ending up on the dinner table, coexist with nearly 2 billion people living at or near starvation levels. It seems the Nobel Committee was unaware of this fact when it sanctified the "only carbon matters" stance of Al Gore with the Peace Prize.

Such a narrow approach serves an agenda that uses climate change as an excuse for protectionism by seeking to penalize countries such as India through "green" tariffs, while ignoring the huge increases in greenhouse gases caused by sports utility vehicles and meat-based lifestyles that are unsustainable for the planet.

In other words, the Copenhagen debate has been structured in such a way as to penalize the poorest on the planet and ensure the continued lifestyle of the richest – surely an adequate justification for yet another Nobel Peace Prize.

In the field of nuclear energy the United States is the laggard among the developed countries, not having put up a power plant for more than three decades. However, the Obama administration is prodding India to spend US$12 billion on nuclear reactors from U.S.-based companies that would use these orders to refine their rusty technologies. Any safety lapses or other problems in the plants supplied to India would be the responsibility of the local economy and population under the liability-limiting clauses favored by the Obama administration.

And it is not just nuclear energy. A host of so-called "green technologies" are being offered by corporations in the developed world, even though far less expensive alternatives of adaptation and modernization of traditional technologies might prove more effective. At one-tenth the cost of these new technologies, countries such as India, China, Indonesia and Egypt could set up adaptation centers to create technology that meets the requirements of the poorer countries. However, such a policy alternative is unlikely to be discussed at Copenhagen

What is needed is a comprehensive evaluation of climate change that factors in both carbon and carbon equivalents. Both in Siberia and the Arctic the melting of the permafrost is resulting in high levels of greenhouse gas-producing methane being released into the atmosphere. Similar damage is being caused by livestock.

An intensive effort should be coordinated worldwide to hunt for existing technologies that provide local solutions and can be adapted for other regions. Choking off incremental industrial expansion in China or India is not going to save the planet, unless this is supplemented with programs of tree planting and seaweed seeding of the oceans; and unless the biggest per capita carbon emitters in the world switch to a more rational lifestyle.

Obama needs to speak for humanity as a whole, not only for a handful of countries and corporations, if he wants Copenhagen to be a climate summit and not just a carbon summit. Of course, the latter would see a large number of the already well-heeled smiling all the way to the bank, while the former would merely ensure that several hundred million people are rescued from starvation.

The outlook for a real climate summit is not hopeful, however, given that the organizers are holding the meeting in one of the most expensive and high per-capita carbon-emitting cities in the world, and that this does not seem to be much on their minds as they settle into their luxury suites in the Danish capital.
(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)

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