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Civilisation And The Carbon
Credit Card

By John James

18 September, 2008

I want to introduce you to Lester Brown. The Washington Post called him "one of the world's most influential thinkers." He founded the Worldwatch Institute, publishes an annual State of the World report, and recently founded the Earth Policy Institute.

One of his goals is to provide a vision of the world we want, and a plan of how to get there. He has called this Plan B3. (Compared to Plan A, which is where we continue hell-bent on our current lemming-like course … When the lemmings jumped off the cliff not one of them questioned their actions!)

In this third version he changed the subtitle of the EPI report from “Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble” to simply “Mobilizing to Save Civilization”. Saving civilisation??

Let’s take this in: We used to think about saving the planet, and though that's still essential, what's now really at stake is civilization itself.

We have a growing backlog of unresolved problems: deforestation, collapsing fisheries, expanding deserts, falling water tables, deteriorating grasslands, melting icebergs, eroding soils, diminishing food.

Nearly every one of these trends is getting worse and the fallout is becoming more difficult to manage, especially in developing countries. If allowed to continue unchecked there is nothing that will prevent us all being swept into history’s dustbins, like so many other civilisations.

Now, to that list add the impact of climate change, population growth and peak oil.

Take one example: The two countries most affected by the melting of the glaciers of Tibet will be India and China, which happen to be the two countries now building most of the world's coal fired power plants.

During the dry season the Ganges is fed by the ice melt from the Gangotri glacier. This vast glacier will be gone in a few decades. If we can't close sufficient coal-fired power plants fast enough to save it, then the Ganges will no longer flow during the dry season. Imagine the agricultural consequences of that to a billion Indians!

Think also about the Yangtze-Kiang that is fed by similar Tibetan glaciers, and helps to feed the people of China.

In other words, the Indians and Chinese are emitting more and more greenhouse gases just when their very survival depends upon cutting back these emissions. That is one enormous error, isn’t it? Maybe not for lemmings.

Here is another for the lemming list: 20 percent of last year’s grain harvest was used to produce ethanol to satisfy, at most, 4 percent of our vehicle fuel needs. The world’s demand for fuel is insatiable, and is only the start of what the world’s drivers will be asking for as oil becomes more expensive.

Burning rice and maize is making a terrible impact on the hungry in the world.
Every one of us needs to know that the grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank with ethanol would feed one person for a year.

It is said that hungry people will destroy governments that cannot feed them. The UN reported a few weeks ago that people in 40 countries around the world are in danger of starvation. How many of their governments are going to survive this tragedy?

There is now a real risk that the combination of rising oil and food prices will greatly increase the number of governments that fail. Lester Brown said “the number of failing states is the key indicator of whether civilization is going to succeed or fail.”

17 of the top 20 failing states have rapid rates of population growth. They are where most of the 70 million people added each year are being born. Brown asks “How many failing states do we need before we have a failing civilization?” No one knows the answer. Mankind has never been there before.

I am not being a scaremonger and do not apologise for the news. I just report the crux of what you can read in your papers at any time, but in such a way as to emphasise the trends and what we need to do about it. This is the world we are living in.

And it is not as if we don’t have the money: If the sustenance of the world’s poor was allocated to the world's 358 billionaires, each of their average incomes would support about 7 million people. But only if they did not use ethanol.
Now, I want to refer to an interview Lester Brown gave recently in the US. In it he reiterated what so many scientists and wise men and women are demanding: “If we are to be sure of saving civilisation, we need 80 to 90 percent reduction in all greenhouse emissions in the next ten to twelve years.” He was asked how do we do that?

Brown answered “There are three components to plan B: first, dramatically raise the sustainability of the world energy producers; second, massive investment in renewable sources of energy; and third, increase the earth's tree cover by planting billions of trees, and stop cutting down the ones we have.”
He offered one simple example: “Most people are familiar with compact fluorescents. If we were to replace every incandescent bulb we could cut global electricity use 12 percent. This would allow us to close 700 of the world's 2360 coal fired power plants.”

In Australia over 50 percent of our electricity comes from coal. Brown said “By 2020 we need wind to provide 40 percent. There are 100,000 wind turbines in operation around the world today, so that means building about a million and a half more each producing two megawatts. Building a million and a half wind turbines over a dozen years is peanuts compared with producing 65 million cars a year, which we do now.”

“We can install a million and a half wind turbines and combine that technology with plug-in electric cars and hybrids. Add a second storage battery and a plug-in to a Toyota Prius and you can recharge the batteries at night. The car's batteries become a storage facility for wind energy that can then be used during the day.”
There is a major competition at the moment between Toyota with the modified Prius and GM with the Chevrolet Volt. Taking everything into account, including the cost of infrastructure, the gasoline equivalent cost of running cars on cheap wind-generated electricity is less than 25 cents a litre. Does that make life easier for those who have to use cars!

The key to getting the market to do this is to add carbon taxes to all products – especially coal - and making renewables like wind power carbon neutral. We now need to stop taxing wages and work, and instead tax pollution and greenhouse gases. We want more work and less pollution – the tax equation is simple!
This way we end up with more jobs and less climate destruction - a win/win situation.

Australia is promising to do its bit. Senator Penny Wong has told all businesses that they have to report in detail on their carbon emissions, starting in July. This is terrific, for with it we can all see who the polluters are, and with the promised Carbon Tax they will have to pay for what they emit. This means that the cleanest industries will produce the cheapest goods, industry will retool where necessary and pollution will go down.

These carbon emission reports would also form the foundation for a Carbon Credit Card that I have discussed here before.

Our job, more than any other, is to support Senator Wong so that she does not cave in to the selfish interests of the coal industry. She is under enormous pressure. The black coal boys are sitting in on her day after day trying to gain exceptions from paying the proposed carbon tax – whereas it is precisely their industry that should be most rigorously taxed if we are to stop emissions.

Our major hope in salvaging our civilisation from the otherwise inevitable is something like Plan B, and this includes a Carbon Tax on all polluters. Contact the senator, email her office, write her letters. Do what you can to sustain her struggle to tax all carbon polluters equally!

John James is a therapist, architect, philosopher and medieval historian. With his wife Hilary and partner Marg Garvan he founded the Crucible Centre to help people find their true value and to be confident in who they are. Their exploration into soul and energy work has just been published as The Great Field. He wrote the site to share information on Climate Change.

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