Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Omit the emissions euphemism

The first step to addressing the problem of climate change is to use the correct language - pollution, not emissions. The term pollution is logically correct. Moreover, using it immediately shows up some otherwise well-meaning solutions as false, and it prepares the ground for what is really needed: a regulated cap on acceptable levels of pollution.

Crude oil and CO2 are both natural substances. Both have valuable properties: one powers our society and the other helps plants grow. Both can be deadly: components of crude oil are carcinogenic; fill your lungs with CO2 and you'll suffocate. The distribution of both, in time, can be managed by natural processes. Among the important differences, however, is the following. Whereas crude oil can be naturally broken down relatively quickly (indeed it's likely that the best thing to do with an oil spill is to leave it alone and not spray with chemicals), the rate at which these natural processes work on CO2 is too slow for our current population. This presents a problem of pollution.

Crude oil is not normally pollution. It naturally bubbles up from the ground, albeit in small quantities, in some places of the world. When you put a lot of it into a tanker, you're managing a valuable commodity. However, when the same oil is no longer in the tanker but spilled onto the surface of the sea or shore, it's a liability. Just like industrial solvents that are valuable in the factory but costly when flushed untreated into a river, otherwise precious molecules can be transformed into pollution just by being in the wrong place and in the wrong quantity. Emission is an unacceptable euphemism. In the same context, pollution is the right word to use when talking about our influence of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Accepting this word pollution is the first step towards averting long-term climatic disaster. It clarifies the problem and even helps to immediately assess the relative merit of some candidate solutions.

Would you like a personal CO2 pollution credit, as advocated by the Royal Society of Arts and echoed by the UK government's David Miliband? No. I don't want personal pollution credits for mercury, lead, CFC or SO2 either. I certainly don't want personal pollution credit cards filling up my wallet.

Should CO2 pollution be regulated? Yes. Should CO2 pollution be regulated at source? Yes. It is conveniently easy to identify the source of the pollution. Oil and gas wells, coal mines and cement factories are difficult to hide, both financially and physically. You could even use Google Earth to help.

As consumers, we must do what we always do and make our choices based on the value and cost of the products and services available to us. Remember we are all addicted to the processes that produce CO2 pollution and that coming off these processes "cold turkey" could lead to political unrest and a cure worse than the disease. We need to take some of the responsibility ourselves to reduce consumption and be prepared for strong price signals that will induce different behaviour.

As people in business, we must clean up the pollution for our consumers and pass on our costs through the economy. There is only one great technological fix available at present - the capability to modify power stations to capture the CO2 they produce. Otherwise, the options are limited and unsatisfactory. We must take CO2 out of the atmosphere more quickly, using plants and trees. Sadly, the final, uncomfortable truth is that we must use the polluting processes less (which brings a concomitant risk of societal failure, but then there are no guarantees that we will survive this challenge.)

The effect on the economy will be significant, but will be less if the rate at which we need to change is minimised. So we need to start as soon as possible.

Governments must create a process which measures absolute pollution levels. It must be aware that increased efficiency can often lead to the rebound effect - an increase in overall consumption. Measuring absolute levels of pollution will help avoid this trap and the problems of well-meaning but flawed "sustainable development" projects which do not even measure how much pollution they have produced or removed from circulation.

Call CO2 pollution what it is, then regulate it to cap it. Regulate it at source (and at the border of your country if it is not regulated in the country of origin.) Regulate to manage the absolute amount in the atmosphere. This means caps are more important than trades. You don't reduce the number of slaves just by creating an international slave trade. Concentrate on the cap, then the mechanism.

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