The hard choices on sustainability

  • 9 September 2007
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We are nowhere near accepting the kind of radical policies required to halt the degradation of our planet. Almost certainly much further damage will be caused before there is a public realisation of what is required.


The deteriorating state of the planet is irrefutable. Dissention will persist but there can be no real doubt about the damage done and the need for sustainability. By sustainability we mean simply meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Climate change is the focal point of this ‘fight for our future'. The predictions on climate change project rising water levels, higher extinction rates, mass displacement and global poverty.

The critical first task is controlling carbon emissions. Only a few nations, mostly northern European, are on track to meet their Kyoto targets. But the most populous countries in the world, India and China, weren't asked to comply with carbon reductions, which has proved “cover” for US refusal to comply.
There may be Greens around the cabinet table but it remains unlikely that Ireland will fulfil its obligations. Many baulked at last year's Stern report, issued on behalf of the British government, which projected that 1 per cent of annual GDP needs to be invested forthwith in ‘green measures' to save up to 20 per cent of GDP in the future. Compliance will demand economic sacrifice.

This was the message to take from this year's G8 summit in Germany, where the leaders agreed only to hold further talks on how to proceed post-Kyoto. No agreement made on mandatory commitments, with the US leading the resistance to fixed targets.     
The change that can affect deep cuts in our emissions and lead to real sustainability is institutional. Progress will be slow and hard fought when profitability margins, and then jobs, are put on the line.

Many major firms are already turning towards a greener future but complain that they need governments to be clear and consistent in communicating their obligations. High emission industries have to be confronted. For instance electricity generation: no matter how efficient coal and gas plants become, they need to be phased out.

There is revived international enthusiasm regarding nuclear power, a zero-emission source accompanied by the grave concerns on nuclear waste management and the risks inherent in the nuclear industry. It is an option which hard-pressed governments will find hard to resist and already this government, curiously at the initiative of Eamon Ryan of the Green Party, has opened that prospect here.

There are other obvious initiatives that could be taken at an individual level: trading the car in for a bike, investing in low-energy light bulbs, turning-off lights and appliances.
Perhaps personal carbon emissions quotas would help, even if the rich would circumvent them for themselves by buying quotas from less polluting neighbours.

However, the prevailing neo-liberal drive towards on-going economic growth is the antithesis of sustainability. Only a ‘less is more' mentality can rescue us.
Controlling population growth has emerged as a ready response to the rise of carbon emissions but outside of totalitarian states, such as China, this can hardly be enforced, although the prevailing culture is doing much to contain population growth in the developed world, this is not true in the vastly more populous under-developed world.
Saving the planet will involve hard choices that, so far, have not even been defined. The virtual certainty is that climate change will hasten before it slows at a cost to the planet that is as of now undeterminable.

Who knows what proportion of our self-absorbed western populations can be counted upon to make the right choices? And what of the billions in the developing world who barely have choices to make? We will probably need healthy doses of encouragement and/or coercion in the form of regulations, tax breaks and penalties. We will also have to give the developing world a fair go at globalisation, most obviously in the area of agricultural subsidies.

 It is an understatement to say that strong political leadership will be required to oversee changes which in reality will cause damage across large sectors of the economy. These politicians will need an almost impossibly strong mandate from an electorate that authorises a government to sacrifice its own short-term prospects for the prosperity of future generations. However one feels about the situation we are in, we are all in it together. It will be a long hard road before we shall see whether the greater good can win out in the end.