When you read about climate change in magazines, the articles almost invariably conclude with a list entitled “10 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint”, or something similar.
Instead of driving, ride your bike, walk, or use public transit. When you do drive, avoid idling and make sure your tires are properly inflated. Insulate your home. Use compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Recycle and compost. Buy local food from farmer’s markets. We’ve heard it all before.
These are important actions to take. They can go a long way to improve local air quality and save you some money. Local food is yummy, and composting is fun to watch. But will they really help fight climate change?
Dr James Hansen, a climatology pioneer with an incredible track record, believes that atmospheric CO2 needs to be reduced to “at most 350 ppm” from the current 389 ppm. Kyoto required an average reduction of 5% below 1990 levels. The Waxman-Markey climate change bill that just passed the US Congress is aiming for an 80% cut by 2050.
It’s an incredible feat in today’s fossil-fuel dependent world for a country to even stabilize their emissions, let alone decrease them, let alone decrease them enough so that CO2 concentrations will stabilize, let alone decrease them enough so that CO2 concentrations will also decrease.
Is it enough just for the government to run a series of ads which encourage bike riding? Is it enough for them to give a tax credit on compost bins? Will that alone cut our global CO2 emissions the drastic amount that is needed? And most importantly, will enough people even make an effort?
Personally, I believe that governments need to take two different kinds of action against climate change.
1) Improve and expand on infrastructure to support a sustainable lifestyle. Basically, make it easy for everyone to follow the “10 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint” list. Create a public transit system which is even more convenient than driving – in Ottawa, where I recently traveled, their rapid-transit buses are so efficient that most (or at least a good chunk of) people ride them to and from work each day. Build bike paths so cyclists don’t have to ride in traffic. Provide a curbside composting and recycling system. Make sustainability so easy for citizens that it won’t seem like an inconvenience.
2) Create legislation and financial incentives, including an emissions target, for industries to move away from fossil fuels and start using clean energies. Citizens and industries tend to care about money more than anything else. If cap-and-trade is designed correctly, it will be in a company’s best financial interests to reduce their emissions. CSS plants will be gold mines. If a carbon tax works correctly, clean energies will cost less than carbon-dense fossil fuels, so people will be more willing to choose them. Their demand will increase and they will become more present in the market.
If you make it easy for people to reduce their carbon footprint, and then it make it more expensive for them not to do so, they will change. If you introduce the freedom to pollute as a currency to industries, they will do what industries like to do, which is to make money and save money.
But simple encouragement will only work on the most ethical of people. And even then it doesn’t go far enough. I would live a far greener lifestyle if transit was better and farmer’s markets were easy to get to.