GLOBAL: Positive signs for carbon reduction

The world's leaders did not deliver an international agreement in Copenhagen and the US is dragging its feet on a climate bill. But there are some positive signs for the future, says US climate guru Lester Brown who says the key driver for this will be genuine competition in developing new energy technology rather than international treaties.

At the European Parliament in Brussels earlier this month, Brown launched his latest book, Plan B 4.0 Mobilizing to Save Civilization. The following is an edited extract from his speech.

There is much that we do not know about the future. But one thing we do know is that business as usual, including our continuing failure to reverse the environmental trends undermining the world food economy, will not last for much longer.

Massive change is inevitable. "The death of our civilisation is no longer a theory or an academic possibility; it is the road we're on," says Peter Goldmark, current director of the climate programme at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Can we find another road before time runs out? I think so. I call this road Plan B.
Plan B is the alternative to business as usual. Its goal is to move the world from the current decline and collapse path on to a new path where food security can be restored and civilisation can be sustained.

Just as the trends that are behind the current deterioration in the food situation - including the loss of cropland to development and soil erosion, falling water tables, the conversion of food into fuel and rising carbon emissions - go far beyond agriculture itself, so too must the response.

Plan B is far more ambitious than anything the world has ever undertaken, an initiative that has no precedent in scale or urgency.

It has four interdependent components: cutting net carbon dioxide emissions 80% by 2020, stabilising population at 8 billion or lower, eradicating poverty, and restoring the earth's natural systems, including soils, aquifers, forests, grasslands and fisheries. The ambitiousness of this plan is not driven by perceived political feasibility but by scientific reality.

The plan to cut carbon emissions involves dramatically raising energy efficiency worldwide, investing in the massive development of renewable energy resources, banning deforestation, and planting trees by the billion. Plan B essentially outlines a transition from an economy powered mainly by oil, coal, and natural gas to one powered largely by wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

Eradicating poverty is a priority goal for three reasons. One, in combination with giving women everywhere access to reproductive health care and family planning services, it is the key to accelerating the global shift to smaller families.

It also helps bring impoverished nations into the international community, giving them a stake in such matters as stabilising climate. When people are not sure where their next meal is coming from, it is difficult for them to get excited about trying to stabilise the earth's climate.

And third, eradicating poverty is the humane thing to do. One of the hallmarks of a civilised society is the capacity to care about others.

The fourth component of Plan B involves repairing and protecting the natural systems that support humankind. This includes conserving soil, banning deforestation, promoting reforestation, restoring fisheries, and making a worldwide effort to protect aquifers by raising water productivity.

Unless we can reverse the deterioration of these systems, we are unlikely to reverse the rise in the number of hungry people, now totalling more than 1 billion.

Almost everything we need to do to move the world economy off the collapse path and back on to an environmentally sustainable path has already been done in one or more countries. For example, more than 30 countries have essentially stabilised their population size.

We see the components of Plan B in technologies already on the market. On the energy front, for example, we can get more energy from an advanced-design wind turbine than from an aging oil well.

The new plug-in gas-electric hybrids coming to market, like the Chevrolet Volt, can get up to triple-digit miles per gallon. In the Plan B energy economy of 2020, most of the US fleet will be plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars, and they will be running largely on wind-generated electricity for the equivalent of less than $1 a gallon of gasoline.

As for Plan B models at the national level, Denmark today gets more than 20% of its electricity from wind and has plans to push this to 50%. Some 27 million Chinese homes get their hot water from rooftop solar water heaters. Iceland, which heats 90% of its homes with geothermal energy, has virtually eliminated the use of coal for home heating.

The United States - which over the last quarter century retired one tenth of its cropland, most of it highly erodible, and shifted to conservation tillage practices on part of the remainder - has reduced soil erosion by 40%. Meanwhile, the grain harvest expanded by one fifth.

Some of the most innovative leadership has come from cities. Curitiba, Brazil, began restructuring its transport system in 1974, and in the two decades that followed the city cut car traffic by 30% while its population doubled. Amsterdam has a diverse urban transport system where some 40% of all trips within the city are taken by bicycle. London is taxing cars entering the city centre and investing the revenue in upgrading public transit.

The challenge is to build a new economy at wartime speed before we miss so many of nature's deadlines that the economic system begins to unravel. Participating in the construction of this enduring new economy is exhilarating. So is the quality of life it will bring.

A world where population has stabilised, forests are expanding, and carbon emissions are falling is within our grasp.

*A free copy of Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), can be downloaded here