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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 February 2005, 10:40 GMT
Clarion call on climate change
Mayer Hillman
Mayer Hillman puts the doomsday case

Veteran environmental activist Mayer Hillman makes the case for a system of rationing use of fuel by every human on the planet, in a way which, for example, would ultimately rule out air travel.

1. The destructive effects of climate change are awesome. They can be seen increasingly in the death and damage from heat waves, droughts, floods and hurricanes around the world. One of the main causes is human activity.

Greenhouse gases are accumulating rapidly, raising global temperature and triggering the effects. Since industrialisation, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached a level 40% higher than during the previous 600,000 years. Its concentrations are now accelerating.

So urgent action is needed to reduce emissions drastically. If not, the rate of damage and death will overwhelm our ability, especially our children's ability, to cope perhaps to survive.

2. The growth of economies especially in the West is closely coupled to the growth of the emissions and damage from them. Consequently, limiting emissions must have a higher priority even though it may well entail less growth.

In the UK, Tony Blair has effectively acknowledged this by saying that the cost of preventing dangerous climate change is less than the cost of failing to prevent it.

Call for carbon emissions to be reduced

However, blind ideological commitment to a burgeoning economy is fundamentally frustrating attempts to protect the global environment adequately. It is assumed that ever more investment, for instance in road, rail and air travel leading to more emissions will deliver economic rather than uneconomic growth.

Indeed, national and international development remains governed by denial that the benefits of growth will be steadily overwhelmed by the un-payable costs of climate change.

  • This denial stands in the way of adopting policies that reflect the gravity of the situation and the urgency with which it must be addressed
  • It results in governments setting lamentably low targets for greenhouse gas reductions
  • It strengthens a totally unjustified faith in the sufficiency of market forces allied to improving efficiency and applying renewable technologies
  • And it encourages a blind-eye being turned to deceptive environmental 'tokenism' such as the promotion of so-called 'eco-tourism' and 'carbon-neutrality' through tree-planting.

3. What are we as individuals doing? At best, using the train more, switching off the TV standby, leaving our recycled bottles for collection on the way to the airport for an exceptionally damaging activity!

More commonly, there is a subconscious wish to believe both the environmental sceptics and the adequacy of current policy. Pathetic justifications are wheeled out for not facing the unpalatable truths for us of the implications of global warming,

  • "It's the government's responsibility ..."
  • "The Americans are far worse ..."
  • "Technology will find the answer"
  • "Global warming is due to a natural solar cycle"
  • "Over-population and poverty are bigger world problems ..."
  • "The plane will fly even if I don't travel in it"
  • "People only act when faced with a direct threat to themselves"

As if such statements exonerate us for continuing with our energy-intensive lifestyles!

Airlines a major polluter?

4. The media are complicit in this frightening state of denial by failing to draw attention to the link between these lifestyles and the alarming changes in the ecology of the planet, (One round flight from London to New York per passenger produces carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to a year's typical car travel).

5. With current targets on reductions of emissions clearly insufficient, what's the answer? Only the solution proposed by the Global Commons Institute has an assured prospect of success a rapid Convergence to equal per capita rationing of carbon emissions within the overall Contraction of the emissions to an internationally agreed safe level.

Contraction & Convergence is being rapidly and widely endorsed: in this country, by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Chief Government Scientist, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the UK's last Minister for the Environment to name but a few.

Traffic jam
Should private cars be restricted?

6. How would carbon rationing work? At the outset each individual will be given an annual allocation of carbon permits at the national average. Year-on-year, the allocation will be ratcheted down to the safe level. The permits will be tradable redeemed for gas use, electricity, petrol, air travel, and so on.

This way a virtuous circle will be created between over-consumers and under-consumers, with the former having to purchase permits from the latter. Most people consume below the national average and will therefore be able to sell their unused permits to the minority. Thus success will result from combining the imperative of achieving climate stability with social justice.

7. It is inexcusable to continue with our energy-profligate lifestyles. Urgent action to limit climate change damages is dictated by recognition of the planet's finite capacity to safely absorb greenhouse gases.

Our continuing uneconomic growth makes us complicit in a process that is triggering an ecological catastrophe for our children and generations beyond them. They will justifiably sit in judgment on our failure to have prevented its devastating consequences knowing that we chose to look the other way.

We have no choice but to cut back severely on the activities causing most climate change damage. Only per capita rationing, within the Contraction and Convergence framework, can assure us of success in preventing the catastrophe.

The book "How we can save the planet" which Mayer Hillman has written with Tina Fawcett has recently been published by Penguin Books. ISBN 0-141-01692-2

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