The Deniers, Part XL: Carbon as currency

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
January 12, 2008

To lower our carbon footprint to levels deemed necessary to prevent climate change, we’ll need to do more than limit our air travel, buy fuel-efficient cars and switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs.

We’ll need to become better people, not driven by the profit motive but by a higher calling that recognizes the planet’s need to deal in carbon – to bank it, to trade in it, and to ration it.

The climate-change movement talks of short-term planetary emergency, but it is more focused on long-term sustainability. For this reason, many if not most environmentalists, from Al Gore to those in your neighbourhood environmental group, want us to change our ways – to adopt a clean lifestyle and become responsible as a steward of this Earth.

For this reason, too, technological changes that promise to effortlessly solve the problem of climate change, without requiring us to bow to Nature, often face scorn. Paul Crutzen, the Nobel-Prize-winning chemist who predicted the Ozone Hole, saw his laurel replaced by barbs when he proposed seeding the upper atmosphere with sulfur to reflect sunlight and heat back into space. Cooling the Earth his way would have allowed us to continue to drive our SUVs with impunity.

Likewise, a proposed Earth-cooling device from Stephen Salter, one of the world’s foremost renewable energy scientists, was criticized as a technological fix. Said Greenpeace of the invention, which would use benign saltwater sprays in remote parts of our oceans to cool the planet: “We’re looking for reductions in the use of fossil fuels rather than these technologies.”

If Greenpeace and others were merely looking for short-term reductions in the use of fossil fuels, they would merely demand something simple, such as taxes on fossil fuels – that governments add a $10 or $20 a barrel surtax on crude oil, or a large hike in gasoline taxes, or a hefty per-tonne tax on coal.

But such levies would do little to change our relationship with the planet. Once we bought more fuel efficient cars and better insulated our homes, we could carry on with our old lifestyles, more or less as normal. We would not need to make the fundamental mindset changes necessary to prevent future exploitation of the planet.

Instead of fossil-fuel taxes, climate-change reformers champion carbon taxes, even though they are mindbogglingly complex mechanisms that require that biological and chemical processes be understood, measured and monitored. Carbon taxes can get at the core of our belief systems and life-and workstyle preferences.

Carbon is the element upon which all living things are built. Control the use of carbon and you are a step closer to control of just about everything. Make carbon a kind of currency – which is what carbon schemes do – and you can encompass farms, fields and forests, as well as their fossilized remains. Create incentive systems that reward frugal carbon use and the very structure of society, and societal understandings, can undergo transformation. This is why, for many environmentalists, a carbon tax trumps a mere tax on fossil fuels.

A Greenpeace study released earlier this week, Cool Farming, shows where carbon-as-currency can take us. Agriculture accounts for up to one-third of greenhouse gases, the study found, far too much to ignore for anyone determined to save the world. It then provides recommendations, both explicit and implicit.

Cutting back on meat consumption is one recommendation, particularly on lamb – pound for pound, sheep are the biggest offenders. Beef is also bad, particularly since its popularity gives it so large a market share. A switch to pigs and chickens would lower our carbon footprint, but not as much as forgoing meat altogether by becoming a vegetarian, especially one who eats lots and lots of potatoes, which have a particularly small carbon footprint.

Organic foods are often better for the planet, as you might expect, but shopping in the organic aisles of your supermarket can also do harm to the planet. For those who remain omnivores, the diet for a climate-challenged planet demands non-organic milk, non-organic poultry, and non-organic eggs.

Our relationship to the land should also change, the Greenpeace study makes clear. Rather than exploiting land for food, fuel or recreation, we can maximize its potential as a vault for carbon. In some cases, croplands can profitably revert to grasslands or wetlands. In other cases, those wetlands may prove undesirable: Waterlogging creates anaerobic conditions that stimulate greenhouse gases.

Grazing lands get good grades, even if the livestock on them don’t. To reduce greenhouse-gas-producing flatulence, Greenpeace wants us to consider the benefits of changing the livestock’s diet, away from its natural forage to concentrates laced with additives and vaccines. Selective breeding to reduce flatulence is another possibility. The climate-change benefits of these mitigation steps may be mitigated themselves, Greenpeace notes, by harm to human health or to other aspects of the environment.

Reinventing ourselves on the carbon motive also requires that rice lands be rethought, and that we reconsider our environmental values. In the same way that organic might not always be right, neither might other values that many environmentalists hold dear. Many (though not Greenpeace) are rethinking their opposition to nuclear power and large hydro dams, seeing them as lesser evils. With the rise of carbon offsets, already a multi-billion-dollar industry, old-growth forests are being converted to cash-crop forestry plantations. Carbon offsets, in effect, are monetizing the entire globe, turning wilderness that once offered the capitalist nothing into a commodity subject to exploration and development.

The cost of converting to the new carbon currency is relatively small, the climate-change community says. So we are asked to convert to a carbon economy, to mitigate the expected effects of CO2. The “cost of mitigation is not high,” assures Rajendra Pauchari, the head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and also of this new world order.

Re-engineer the planet for the better, he’s saying, and trust him with it.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and the Urban Renaissance Institute.


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