Thursday, November 24, 2011

Andrew Charlton: Balancing Progress and the Planet

A binding agreement on carbon emissions is a totally unrealistic expectation of next week's Durban COP17 climate change conference. So what are the alternatives?

Adam Morton, Environment editor at The Age, explored some solutions with Andrew Charlton, author of the Quarterly Essay Man-Made World: Choosing between progress and planet at the Wheeler Centre on 23 November 2011.

“Progress has its price. Each step of human advancement has left a footprint on the planet. Today our two defining challenges are managing climate change and eliminating global poverty. In Copenhagen we learned that these challenges are inseparable.”

According to Charlton the lesson from Copenhagen is that changing geopolitics mean that the needs of the developing world must be met, as well as those of the developed world.

This will require an enormous effort globally of an unprecedented scale. On climate change, he argues that we need a total re-engineering equivalent to the Second World War. Similar action is required to double food production during this century as world population continues to climb.

He sees ingenuity as the key to the kinds of solutions necessary in both areas. Power needs to be less expensive but more available in developing countries by making clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels.

Current technologies such as wind and solar cannot deliver the kind of cutbacks in greenhouse gases that the Greens believe possible. Nor can carbon prices by themselves. Alternative solutions will necessitate a massive shift in focus to research and development of breakthrough technologies.

Charlton was not without some optimism. He believes that China is misunderstood. Its leaders are driven by four motives that together offer hope:
  • overcoming poverty through development
  • obtaining energy security
  • reducing air pollution
  • tackling climate change
Most of the big gains in technology will happen overseas. Australia needs to collaborate with countries like China on the technological solutions. When questioned about our carbon legislation he stressed that it is necessary, though even the 5% reduction from 2000 levels by 2020 is ambitious since it represents a 30 - 40 % decline from projected emissions.

He emphasised that the 'balance of risks' has moved on both climate change and poverty. Despite his misgivings that the risks are real, nuclear power must be part of the solution for many countries. Similarly GM crops have the capacity to meet the food challenge, as organic farming cannot deliver the necessary increases. We must be alert to the possible dangers without ruling out these unpopular options.

Needless to say, Andrew’s views were not popular with many in the audience, especially those supporting approaches such as the Beyond Zero Emissions plan, which he contested during the session.

Political leadership will be a decisive factor. Our leaders must focus on the cost of not acting.

Charlton’s presentation had the desired effect. It will be weekend reading. Watch this space or buy a copy.

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