The pressure is on, the posturing prevalent and grandstanding is everywhere. This is normal, the usual prelude to a gathering of political leaders when an issue is contentious. And in December 2009 world leaders, their advisors and armies of press and interest groups will be in Copenhagen, Denmark for COP15 – the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference.
These annual meetings for parties to the Kyoto Protocol have been around a bit – Poznan (Poland), Bali (Indonesia), and Nairobi (Kenya) since 2006 – because it is important to get everyone involved. Usually they are tense, and sometime terse affairs, that end up with aspirations hosed down by the need for compromise.
Let us suppose that this time it is different. Imagine that in Copenhagen, after all the verbal fencing and individual moments in the spotlight, the leaders sit down and actually agree to a bold resolution. They agree to big reductions in carbon emissions and sign off to an emission target of 80% below 1990 levels by 2030. ‘Yes we can’ they say.
The media, not to mention you and I, are astonished, shocked even. We are not sure if we should be ecstatic or skeptical. Yet is what so many wanted and we breathe again.
There is more. The leaders fly home and they deliver.
Legislation is passed, emissions trading schemes are implemented, clean power projects sprout up everywhere supported by tax breaks, carbon stripper technology is fitted to all the coal fired power stations and around the world people are encouraged to eat less meat. This last innovation has the multiple benefits of lowering incidence of heart disease, reducing methane production and promoting healthier rangelands.
The transport sector undergoes the biggest change as combustion engines are replaced by hydrogen fuel cells. Cars, boats, trains and planes no longer emit carbon. Nascar racing survives because we are nostalgic for the sounds of pistons and exhausts. The term hybrid returns to its botanical roots.
It takes a decade or two for the ripples of this massive upheaval to spread and dissipate – only they do settle. The 80% target is reached and the scientists confirm that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have stabilized. Some of the boffins are still worried about the ice caps and sea level, but no matter, we are carbon neutral.
What will the environment have to say about all this change? Will Gaia turn around and say ‘welcome humanity, my new carbon neutral friend’? Well she might.
Clean power and changes to the way we grow our food will exert less of a strain and allow climate to follow its natural path of change. However, not so long ago our environmental attention and concern was on disruption to ecosystem services, a little before that it was on biodiversity loss, and earlier still on the effects of pollution. Achieving carbon neutrality will not fix these things.
Reduced risk from slowing climate change would help but it will not address directly our use of natural resources, insensitive land management, manufacturing, and the needs of billions stuck in subsistence agriculture.
Yes we can… make the environment our friend – but cleaning up our carbon emissions is only part of what we need to do to mend the relationship.
Even if the leaders leave Denmark with a smile on their face, there is still great work to be done.