How self-interest can save the climate debate

12/06/2010 12:56 AM

(and waiting for consensus might waste your future)
By Mathis Wackernagel

As world leaders head into the final days of climate talks in Cancun, it is time to put to right a misperception that for too long has shackled our approach to this vital issue. The error is simply this: Taking action is a burden some nations will need to shoulder for the good of the world – rather than the single best action each nation can take to further its own long-term interests.

The question by governments of “What’s in it for me?” has up to now been a major stumbling block to international agreement. But if leaders and their administrations truly understood the underlying resource dynamics, they would have the exact opposite approach. They would see it is in their self-interest to act quickly and aggressively, whatever the actions taken by their global neighbors.  In fact, each country’s own actions will become more urgent and valuable the less others do.

Why would it be in any individual country’s interest to address a problem whose costs are ultimately born by all of humanity? Consider the nature of the carbon problem.

Climate change, first and foremost, is a consequence of high fossil fuel dependence. Even though climate change is a global problem, the fossil fuel dependence that contributes to it carries growing economic risks for the emitting country. Working our way out of this addiction takes time, and the longer we wait to radically rethink and retool our societies, the less chance we will have to alter course.

But there is another important piece of the picture beyond fossil fuel. Climate change is not an issue in isolation, but rather, a symptom of a broader challenge: humanity’s systematic overuse of the planet’s finite resources.

Our natural systems can only generate a finite amount of raw materials (fish, trees, crops, etc.) and absorb a finite amount of waste (such as carbon dioxide emissions). Global Footprint Network quantifies this rate of output through a measure called biocapacity. Biocapacity is as measurable as GDP – and, ultimately, far more significant, as access to basic living resources underlies every economic activity a society can undertake.

Up to now, we have treated biocapacity as an essentially limitless flow, to the point that our demand for nature’s services now outstrips biocapacity by 50 percent, according to Global Footprint Network’s latest research . This approach has been an integral part of the climate crisis, as with every hectare of forest we clear for raw materials, built-up land or other land-uses (such as grazing or cropland), we reduce the Earth’s ability to absorb CO2 and regulate climate.

Ecological trends suggest, however that we will soon be facing another crunch: biocapacity.

Consider this: No matter which way the future goes, whether we avoid climate disaster or we continue with business as usual, increasing consumption, population and CO2 emission, the pressure on biocapacity will escalate— and having access to biocapacity will earn ever higher premiums.

The Climate Accord vs. the Runaway Scenario
The US President, European heads of state and other G-20 leaders have affirmed the need to stay within a 2º Celsius climate alteration (at a minimum) to avoid widespread calamity. Some climate models point to a 350 ppm limit for CO2 in the atmosphere in order to achieve this – less than the carbon concentration we have today. Yet even if we aim for the more conservative target of 450 ppm, this would call for shifting out of fossil fuel, and a wholesale restructuring of the way we produce and use energy. But hardly anybody admits this mathematical truth.

Even with significant development of wind and solar power technologies, if we want to have the amount and ease of choice around energy availability we have enjoyed up to now, we will need to rely to some extent on fuels from biological sources. Add to that the resources needed to provide for a growing population, a swelling middle class, and the two billion alive today who lack enough to meet basic needs. It is clear, even with a strong climate accord, biocapacity will be under pressure as never before.

And what if we don’t succeed in heading off climate change? Biocapacity will become even more vulnerable and, in all likelihood, subject to staggering declines. With crops failing and drought widespread, the failure of an international cooperation will set a poor stage for negotiating the distribution of dwindling resources. Those countries whose economies depend most on access to massive amounts of resources – especially resources from abroad – will find themselves particularly vulnerable.

Winning – or losing – the Earth Race
In a world facing a biocapacity crunch, the winning economic strategies will be preserving biocapacity on the one hand, and reducing demand for it on the other. And here’s a bit of good news: those also happen to be leading strategies for minimizing climate change.

Many believe the race to develop green technology – what columnist Thomas Friedman has dubbed the “Earth Race”— will bring the spoils of the future to the early movers and adopters, and secure innovative nations and enterprises with positions of advantage on the global stage. This is the carrot pushing green innovation. But there is an even more powerful stick. Those countries and cities trapped in energy- and resource-intensive infrastructure will not be able to adapt in time to meet the emerging resource constraints.

In the face of a failure to reach agreement at Cancun, individual countries will have to do more to curb their resource demand in order to assure their long-term stability and security. The lack of agreement won’t give us a break from taking action—on the contrary, it will force us to work significantly harder.

If our leaders understood this, the discussion at global climate talks would take an entirely new direction. As Cancun draws to a close, we are not calling on leaders simply to do what’s needed for the good of other nations. Rather, we are asking them to come to the table mindful of what they must do to responsibly serve their own.

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