Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 9. Cutting Carbon Emissions in Half: Introduction

When the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997, the proposed 5-percent reduction in carbon emissions from 1990 levels in industrial countries by 2012 seemed like an ambitious goal. Now it is seen by more and more people as being out of date. Even before the treaty has entered into force, many of the countries committed to carrying it out have discovered that they can do even better.1 

National governments, local governments, corporations, and environmental groups are coming up with ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions. Prominent among these is a plan developed by the British government to reduce carbon emissions 60 percent by 2050, the amount that scientists deem necessary to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. Building on this, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Sweden's Prime Minister Göran Persson are jointly urging the European Union to adopt the 60-percent goal.2 

A plan developed for Canada by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Climate Action Network would halve carbon emissions by 2030 and would do it only with investments in energy efficiency that are profitable. And in early April 2003, the World Wildlife Fund released a peer-reviewed analysis by a team of scientists that proposed reducing carbon emissions from U.S. electric power generation 60 percent by 2020. This proposal centers on a shift to more energy-efficient power generation equipment, the use of more-efficient household appliances and industrial motors and other equipment, and in some situations a shift from coal to natural gas. If implemented, it would result in national savings averaging $20 billion a year from now until 2020.3 

In Canada's most populous province, an environmental groupthe Ontario Clear Air Alliance—has devised a plan to phase out the province's five coal-fired power plants, the first one in 2005 and the last one by 2015. The plan is supported by all three major political parties. Jack Gibbons, director of the Alliance, says of coal burning, "It's a nineteenth century fuel that has no place in twenty-first century Ontario."4 

Germany, which has set the pace for reducing carbon emissions among industrial countries, is now talking about lowering its emissions by 40 percent by 2020. And this is a country that is already far more energy-efficient than the United States. Contrasting goals for cutting carbon emissions in Germany and the United States are due to a lack of leadership in the latter—not a lack of technology.5 

U.S.-based Interface, the world's largest manufacturer of industrial carpeting, cut carbon emissions in its Canadian affiliate during the 1990s by two thirds from the peak. It did so by examining every facet of its business—from electricity consumption to trucking procedures. The company has saved more than $400,000 a year in energy expenditures. CEO Ray Anderson says, "Interface Canada has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 64 percent from the peak, and made money in the process, in no small measure because our customers support environmental responsibility." The Canadian plan to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 was inspired by the profitability of the Interface initiative.6

Although stabilizing atmospheric CO2 levels is a staggering challenge, it is entirely doable. Detailed studies by governments and by various environmental groups are beginning to reveal the potential for reducing carbon emissions while saving money in the process. With advances in wind turbine design and the evolution of the fuel cell, we now have the basic technologies needed to shift quickly from a carbon-based to a hydrogen-based energy economy. Cutting world carbon emissions in half by 2015 is entirely within range. Ambitious though this might seem, it is commensurate with the threat that climate change poses.


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