History will remember 2008 for its ‘crisis of capitalism’. The crash on Wall Street was the game-changer in the US election race, and it could soon be remembered as the gamechanger on climate change, too.
Again, ‘the pieces are in flux’ and the question mark is over how exactly the world responds. The climate crisis, seen as an overwhelming challenge, was put firmly into some sort of perspective by the economic crunch. Given the numbers involved with the bank bailouts, the fundsnow needed to stop warming and to make the transition to a clean energy system suddenly sound a lot more realistic.
The battle lines have been underlined in recent weeks, as the EU’s climate package was up for negotiation. Some right-wingers, such as Silvio Berlusconi, responded typically, saying: ‘Our businesses are in absolutely no position at the moment to absorb the costs of the regulations that have been proposed… It is ridiculous that we are selling the right to pollute’.
Meanwhile UN leaders, with funding from the governments of Germany and Norway, began spearheading a project for a ‘green new deal’ to promote a massive redirection of investment, away from the speculation that caused the bursting ‘financial and housing bubbles’ and into job-creating programmes to restore the natural systems that underpin the global economy.
This year’s figures show that approximately $150 billion has been invested in renewables around the world, and the good news is that President-elect Obama has pledged to match this in the US alone. China too is awakening. While it’s true that this year China overtook the US as the world’s largest polluter, it also now has the fastest-growing clean energy sector in the world. In the past 12 months, China has installed far more wind capacity than the UK has built ever. It had 156 per cent growth in its wind energy sector and became the fourth-biggest user of renewable energy in the world.
Swelling numbers of economists here in Britain are also starting to agree that we need a plan in the mould of Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘new deal’ to kick-start clean energy and tackle what Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation terms ‘the triple crunch of credit, oil and climate crises’. The Government’s Renewable Energy Strategy (RES) could form part of the backbone of such a scheme. This strategy outlines how switching to renewables for as much as 40 per cent of our electricity within the next 12 years could create 160,000 new green jobs. This will require as much as £100 billion of investment, but with rocketing fossil fuel prices, increasing dependency on dodgy governments and pressure on land creating food-versus-fuel dilemmas, this sum looks ever-more reasonable.
As hope for a new approach has grown – not least in the election of Barack Obama – the voices of caution have grown louder. Professor Jim Hansen warned this year that we have passed what are safe levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. He warned we need to go into net negative carbon emissions. His caution came as scientists predicted Arctic sea ice will have disappeared within five years. We are living in the most important 100 months in human history – what we do in this time will determine the nature of human life for centuries to come.
Another 12 of those months have just passed, with some opportunities grasped but many more neglected. Will 2009 be any different? It won’t be if we don’t make it so.
Joss Garman is an environmental campaigner and journalist
This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2008