Friday, 8 May 2009

Stern reality

Last night I listened to a talk by Nicholas Stern, now Lord Stern, on climate change. He was very lucid on the risks that we run, but less so on the remedies. At one point he said 'No doubt, economic growth can't go on forever', but he didn't follow it up. In fact he was talking about how to resume economic growth in a way that reduces our greenhouse emissions. But he spoke only of action by governments and corporations; he did not talk about how individual life-styles can and must change drastically. He made no mention of the fact that livestock production is thought to emit more greenhouse gas than motor cars, though eating less meat is probably the greatest single contribution each of us in the rich countries can make.

The fundamental problem is one of differences in wealth and income. As long as some people are vastly richer than others, the rich will be able to go on spending on forms of consumption with a big carbon footprint. The only way to distribute cuts fairly is by rationing. In World War Two, the British willingly accepted ration books, which ensured that there was enough food for everyone and that we all shared the hardships. Genuine action on climate change will feel like a war; time to rediscover rationing!

Not that it will be easy! Electricity, for example, can be produced from anything from near zero to 100% fossil fuels. It would therefore be difficult to ration its use according to its carbon footprint. Perhaps the simplest would be to ration a few things with a large footprint, such as meat, gas, petrol and coal. This would also have the psychological effect of reminding people repeatedly that all consumption has ecological costs.

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