Climate meltdown

Last updated: May 2006


With the battle against climate change looking increasingly hopeless, especially in the face of the booming economies of China and India, why should we bother trying to stop the inevitable? asks Simon Birch

The shock news headlines about the latest dire warnings from climate change scientists makes for grim reading indeed. What hope is there when the exploding economies of Brazil, China and India and their ballooning greenhouse gas emissions look set to obliterate any effort made in the UK?

Look at the facts: China will build 550 fossil fuel power stations within 25 years; India now makes three times as many cars as it did eight years ago and by 2020 the world will need 40% more energy, 80% of which will be needed by developing countries.



What’s the point? 

Faced with this sobering reality, it’s no wonder that many of us are asking what’s the point of cancelling that flight to Barcelona or struggling to work on an overcrowded train. Why should we bother?

Ashok Sinha who heads the Stop Climate Chaos campaign recognises that this feeling of hopelessness is a real phenomenon.  “Campaigners have spent a long time explaining the issues and the science behind climate change to people,” explains Sinha. “Now though we’ve reached a point where increasing numbers of people accept that climate change is real, the problem is that people have been tipped over to the other side whereby they feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem.”

So how is Sinha convincing people that the situation is far from hopeless? “What’s important to understand is that people don’t have to abandon their current lifestyles,” says Sinha. “There are lots of simple things that people can do to reduce their carbon emissions, whether it be switching to low energy light bulbs or taking a shower rather than having a bath.”

But whilst it’s accepted that individual action on climate change is important, climate meltdown isn’t going to be averted simply by grappling with our addiction to cheap airlines. 



Political action 

“The most critical thing is that people become more politically active,” believes Germana Canzi, senior climate change campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “People will only change their behaviour when the government starts sending out the right signals. For example they could tax the things that are bad for the environment, such as flying, and make those activities which are better, such as public transport, cheaper.”

To achieve this goal FOE is currently campaigning for a Climate Change Bill which, if adopted, would set the UK on a path to long-term cuts in its greenhouse gases. But even if such a Bill eventually became law, would it really make that much difference given that the UK is only responsible for just over 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions? What about the huge impact from India and China?



Exporting the problem 

Interestingly, Robin Oakley, an energy campaigner with Greenpeace UK who’s just back from two years working in the Greenpeace China Beijing office, believes that our response to the environmental threat posed by countries such as China and India is misinformed.

“It’s too easy to point at China or India as an excuse for avoiding taking action on climate change in the UK,” says Oakley.  “To begin with, within the next 20 years, China’s going to become the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, finally overtaking the US. However, because it has such a massive population, if you look at the emissions on a per capita basis for China the average Chinese person contributes a fraction of the greenhouse gasses compared with the average Brit or American.”

The other key point to consider is the role that western consumers have in the Chinese economic miracle. “China is now the world’s biggest manufacturing country and the vast majority of the products made in China are being shipped over to us in the West. In effect, we’re basically exporting the problem of greenhouse gas production to China when, in fact, it’s a more globalised issue,” says Oakley.



Leading the way 

Still the problem remains of how we tackle these rising emissions.  According to Germana Canzi, countries such as China and India will only begin to address this issue when the UK, the rest of the EU and the US take more concrete action on climate change. 

“The UK might only contribute a small amount to global greenhouse gas emissions but many countries are looking to the likes of the UK to see how we’re performing on climate change policy,” says Canzi. “If we can show that we can achieve reductions here it will make it much easier to convince countries such as India and China, and indeed the US, that in the future they can do the same without destroying their economies.”

“It’s industrialised countries like the UK which have been emitting carbon dioxide for the past 150 years,” says Canzi, “ which is why it’s so important that, as individuals, we stay positive and take real steps to reduce our own emissions. If we can’t do this why should we expect the Chinese or Indian people to do anything?”

[See also the comments on Peak Oil in the Feature ‘Reflections on reaching 100’]


From Ethical Consumer, Issue 100, May/June 2006