Climate change skeptics argue that the earths climate
is always changing. But talking about climate change in
isolation is nonsense. It is one by-product of a wide range of
natural and man-made activities activities that
transform our planet, our society and our economy. Climate
change affects every aspect of our lives, from buying a
designer shirt in Manhattan to a Big Mac in Shanghai. Although
the growth in factories which create everything from
fine Swiss watches (whose movement, case and strap often start
life in China) to Apple and Samsung smartphones has
helped lift workers out of poverty, the pollution that those
factories spew contributes to global warming.
Climate change is the biggest security risk to the survival
of human society, the global economy and perhaps our species.
Tackling it is the role of the annual Conference of the
Parties, also known as COP. Despite terrorist attacks in Paris
on November 13, this years December talks went smoothly.
All credit goes to the French for running a well-managed event,
array of world leaders at COP21 and gaining whats
been called a historic climate accord. But what does it
achieve? And what needs to be done?
Our planet is a closed system with finite resources and a
finite capacity to absorb pollution. Whether you believe
climate change is man-made or not, most pollution is and
it is increasing. Our planet can absorb only limited amounts of
pollution. Previous generations left the planet a better place,
but we pump out air pollution at ever-higher rates, changing
the composition of our atmosphere and causing significant
increases in respiratory diseases and cancer rates, with worse
to come if we dont act now. As a longtime resident of
Hong Kong, Ive seen the devastating effects of rising
pollution levels firsthand.
How can we mitigate the effects of growing pollution? And
what will be the role of the Paris climate accord, which has
almost no teeth?
Although there is little in terms of mandatory deliverables
in the Paris agreement, it does record accepted facts and
international commitments. Previous climate treaties, like the
Kyoto Protocol, may have had mandatory deliverables, but few if
any countries have met their commitments under those
The most powerful influence on current and future climate
mitigation and practice is the sleeping giant: the consumer.
When people wake up in the morning frightened that the West
Antarctic Ice Sheet could detach from the continental shelf and
cause an abrupt sea level change and all the geophysical mayhem
that could accompany such an event, they might then make
purchasing decisions calculated to alter commercial,
industrial, municipal, national and international pollution
practices and management.
The Paris agreement is a timely reminder that there are
dangers out there and that we need to act now to avert the
worst of the consequences. To contain and manage these risks, a
balance needs to be found to reduce and mitigate pollution and
manage resource use to avoid extinction-level changes while
also ensuring continued economic and social development. This
is the conundrum the Paris agreement seeks to address.
In brief, the issues are:
Advanced economies became developed by unrestrained
use of resources and unrestricted pollution. Yet now the
developed world is saying to emerging economies:
Dont do as we did.
Emerging economies continue to develop using the same
model. Economic development that relies on fossil fuels as the
main energy source means that the right to develop equals the
right to pollute.
Emerging economies wont accept developed
economies saying, Dont pollute, because to do
so means that younger economies cant develop, and the
lack of economic development causes social discontent and
increased security risks.
To ensure economic growth and reduce global economic,
social and environmental risks,
we urgently need to find a creative resolution that transcends
Treaties or laws by themselves cant make anyone to do
anything. Enforcement of laws, not the mere existence of laws,
can lead to behavioral changes. But more than that, popular
trends tend to lead to society-level behavioral changes. In the
climate change case, at some point global consumers may realize
that we may be a major cause of the problem, and that as
consumers we have the power to change our behavior to reduce
the worlds pollution.
Some climate experts speak of zero growth and other
doomsday-sounding solutions. I believe we can sustain our
levels of economic growth and continue to develop without
sacrificing our comfort, but we do need to change our patterns
of waste and consumption. Were profligate in our
consumption and in our waste. Much that is dumped at sea or in
landfills can be reused or recycled.
What other steps can be taken? The best forms of land-based
carbon capture are the broad-leafed tropical hardwood rain
forests. But were busy cutting them down, turning them
into farms and
palm oil plantations.
New and not so new pollution-reducing
Electric-powered scooters, cars, buses and trucks can make
a difference, especially in urban areas. Electricity
centralizes pollution at power plants where carbon-capture
technology can be deployed effectively.
Tesla is rapidly becoming a preferred luxury car brand in
Hong Kong, while fusion power, in which Germany has made a big
investment, could be the clean energy of the future.
The technology exists to capture pollution at the source
from factories, large ships and power stations. The question is
how to make it cost effective. One solution could be to charge
a pollution premium a levy to be paid by polluters that
dont implement emissions capture technology. This penalty
could also be imposed on imports from noncompliant factories
abroad. Ironically, pollution from power generation and
manufacturing consists of valuable materials, such as sulphur,
mercury, heavy metals and the like, that are hazardous to our
health but essential in manufacturing and can be processed and
sold at a profit.
But what about the Paris agreement? In terms of commitments,
the outcome is modest. Its one of a series of periodic
wake-up calls. But in that sense it is a clarion cry and
timely. Now its up to the world to act on the alarm
sounded in the City of Light.
Julian Stargardt is CEO of Hong Kongbased Asia
Pacific Strategic Consulting and a senior research associate
with the University of Sussex Centre for World