environment - good news?
December 27, 2006 11:54pm CST
We hear lots of bad news about the environment. But there’s plenty of good news too. We need it. If environmentalists offer too much bad news, the public will become despondent until they feel paralyzed—and then they will do nothing about the problems. This is a natural human reaction. I would do it myself. I would tune out the bad news in the first place. So here are some pieces of good news. Let’s start with the atmosphere and climate. The ozone layer is on the point of recovering. This success story dates back to 1987, when scientists began to speak with a single, decibels-loud voice. The world’s governments moved in just nine months (instant speed for governments) to conclude a treaty to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-destroying chemicals. All too often, when a dozen governments get together they are unlikely to agree on the time of day. Yet 163 governments signed the treaty. Now for what many scientists believe is the biggest environmental problem ahead, global warming. To tackle it we need to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, viz. coal, oil, and natural gas. Burning fossil fuels gives off carbon dioxide, and the build-up of that greenhouse gas causes half of global warming processes. To cut back on fossil fuels, we should build more efficient cars, insulate our buildings better, and use advanced light bulbs. Amory Lovins, a Colorado scientist, is well on the way to inventing a streamlined and hybrid-power car that will drive from New York to Los Angeles on a single tankful of gasoline. He and his wife Hunter live at 7,100 feet in the Rocky Mountains where the winter temperature often plunges below freezing every night for weeks if not months on end. Their house with its exceptional energy-efficiency installations leaves them with an annual heating bill of less than $50 [U.S]. Nor did the house need way-out and costly technology. All items had long been available at the local store, and the Lovins’s energy savings paid off their capital investment within two years. The same applies to most other forms of energy efficiency. If all of us made use of them, we could save two-fifths of our carbon dioxide emissions straightaway. We would cut back not only on carbon dioxide but acid rain and urban smog as well—and we would put money in our pockets. An average British household could save enough during a year to take the family off for a long weekend holiday. It is what is known in the trade as a “win-win” situation where nobody ends up a loser. Consider how our house lighting can save on electricity and hence on fossil fuels. In Japan, more than 80 percent of homes are lit with low-power and long-lasting bulbs that give light as good as conventional bulbs. In Norway, one home in every 25 (50,000 in total) are powered by photovoltaics. In Kenya, 20,000 homes are electrified with solar cells, or 3000 more than by hooking up with the central power grid. If price trends of the 1990s continue, solar technologies will provide power at 6 cents per kWh by the year 2000, making it broadly competitive with electricity derived from fossil fuels. Much the same applies to wind power. During just the past few years, generating capacity has risen rapidly until wind power is now the fastest-growing energy source. In Germany, its output has topped 1,000 MW, making it the world’s most energetic (sic) wind-power market. India possesses the second fastest growing wind-power industry with 500 MW installed, while China plans on 1,300 MW by the year 2000. In California there are 1,700 turbines generating enough electricity to supply all of San Francisco’s people. By late 1995, 25,000 wind turbines worldwide produced nearly 5,000 MW of power, albeit only 0.1 per cent of the world’s electricity. In many parts of the world, the cost of wind-generated electricity has fallen by two-thirds since 1990, and in many regions it has become competitive with new coal-fired power plants. As wind turbines enter mass production, costs should soon fall below 4 cents per kWh, making wind one of the least expensive electricity sources. The fossil-fuel industries, worth over $1 trillion worldwide, will, of course, work to counter this treat, and they can mobilize impressive financial muscle for lobbying campaigns. However, they are being challenged by another corporate giant, the insurance industry, worth $1.5 trillion worldwide. Insurers have suffered from ever-increasing payouts for floods, droughts, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events, all of which are steadily on the rise as probable portents of global warming. Insurance leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have asserted that if the trend persists, it could precipitate a crisis in the industry by the year 2000, with all manner of knock-on effects for banks and other finance institutions such as pension funds, thus affecting all citizens. Examples of environmentally friendly practices making good business sense are increasing. Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, makers of scotch tape and many other office supplies, has saved more than $750 million since 1975 through its recycling and waste management practices. The eco-technology market as a whole was worth $210 billion in 1992 in developed countries, and is expected to reach $320 billion by the year 2000—only a little less than the global chemicals industry, now worth $350 billion. Much eco-technology is being deployed in the Mediterranean countries, following a remarkable political breakthrough that is coming to full fruition. By the mid-1970s concern was rising that the Mediterranean Sea was dying from industrial effluents and the like. Both fishing and tourism were in steep decline. The governments concerned, among them some traditional enemies such as Israel and Syria, Greece and Turkey, Egypt and Libya, France and Algeria, and Spain and Morocco, came together around a United Nations table and tackled their common problem with a common solution. Virtually all the coastal states have ratified the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea Against Pollution (1976) and its associated protocols. Today the Mediterranean is in better shape than for decades, thanks to its Clean-Up Plan. Many of the states now treat their sewage before discharging it into the sea, industrial pollution has been reduced, and eight out of ten beaches are considered safe for swimming once more. The Mediterranean Clean-Up Plan is being replicated in other “regional seas,” including the Persian Gulf where Iran and Iraq sit side by side at the negotiating table. There is still, of course, much to be done. In developing countries, there can hardly be a more widespread pollution problem today than dirty water. It is the source of 90 percent of all disease there, and it helps to kill millions of children every year. As long as parents see their children dying, they won’t be interested in family planning. Rather they will produce as many children as they can manage in order to be sure that at least some survive to support the parents in old age. So a prime means to defuse the population explosion lies with clean water—and it is the main defense against the number one problem, diarrhea. We already save four million children a year, but we could easily save another three million from this scourge. We could save a further two million children from other water-related diseases through mass immunization. The two measures together would cost only $15 per child a year, while avoiding future medical costs averaging $150. Rich countries usually contribute one quarter of the bill, the rest being paid by developing countries themselves. To save the additional five million children each year, the extra cost to the rich-world taxpayer would be the equivalent of a beer every second month. It adds up to a splendid opportunity. No other generation has ever had the chance to save so many children, and at such trifling cost. Why is it taking so long to do something about it? A major reason is the lack of awareness. But that is changing, as the large increase in environmental pressure groups and public opinion surveys show. It is partly in response to this growing public awareness that political and military leaders are starting to recall what one visionary statesman, Mikhail Gorbachev, said, that the threat from the skies is no longer nuclear missiles but climate dislocation. Finally, let us remind ourselves that there is no limit to what we can do when we set our minds to it. Just the four years 1989-1992 saw the end of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War, Communism, and the Soviet Union; and we made solid moves toward peace in South Africa, the Middle East, and El Salvador. Who would have taken on a bet in 1989 that we would achieve that much by the year 2000? And in light of the good news items above, shouldn’t we consider that we face insurmountable opportunities?