Looking at the global and local again

Looking at the global and local again

World CO2 emissions per capita. Photo credits: http://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/index.php

Jose Ignacio Garcia, SJ

One of the aspects that most concern us as editors of Ecology and Jesuits in Communication is finding the connections between what happens locally and that which has global effects. We know that the limits are not always obvious and that’s the reason we would like to focus this June issue on two events that can help us delve into the interconnections between local and global.

First is the announcement by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that CO2 emissions significantly increased in 2010. IEA estimates that we have historically reached the highest levels of emission that seriously endangers the possibility of limiting the global temperature increase below 2o Celsius, which is the reference with widest consensus in limiting the effects of climate change.

If emissions were reduced in 2009 probably due to the economic crisis, in 2010 they increased in a big way: 5% from the previous peak in 2008, or, from 29.3 to 30.6 Gigatons (Gt). “This significant increase in CO2 emissions and the amount already committed for investments in infrastructure are a serious setback to our hopes of limiting global temperature increase below 2o Celsius,” said Dr. Fatih Birol, IEA chief economist.

In order to keep to this limit of 2o Celsius, which was also agreed at the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun in 2010, CO2 emissions in 2020 should not exceed 32 Gt. This means that in the next 10 years, emissions should increase less than it did between 2009 and 2010, a tough challenge.

Increased emissions are not distributed equally. Although developed countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), contribute 40% of global emissions, their contribution to the recent increases is only by 25%. Other non-OECD countries, especially China and India, contributed the most to the increase of emissions due to the dynamism of their economies. While emerging countries are rapidly getting incorporated into the club of the major emitters, if we look at per capita criteria there are still big differences. While the OECD countries emit 10 tons per capita, China emits 5.8 tons and India 1.5 tons. Yet the differences are substantial.

Operating nuclear reactors worldwide. Photo credits: http://www.iaea.org/

The second line of our analysis is about the decisions made in Switzerland, Germany, and more recently in Italy, to abandon or suspend its nuclear programs.

Last May, the Swiss government decided to abandon the project to build three new plants and the closure of the five currently in operation by 2034, when they will reach the end of the plants’ useful lives. This is an important decision because nuclear energy accounts for 39% of the electricity consumed in the country.

Shortly after, the German government announced that all nuclear plants in their country will be closed by 2022. The seven oldest reactors already in detention will not be put back into operation, and the rest will go until they completely close in 2022.

Italy followed suit and, in a recent referendum that garnered 95% agreement, decided to suspend any new nuclear installation.

Undoubtedly the accident at Fukushima is behind all these movements to abandon nuclear energy and the weight of public opinion shocked by the tragedy in Japan has been decisive. In the case of Germany, the report of the Ethics Commission for a Safe Energy Supply made an ethical assessment of the nuclear energy. This report titled “Germany’s Energy Transition: A Collective Endeavour for the Future” has been very important and not without controversy.

All these events, so different but interconnected, can help reflect anew on the relationship between global and local events and their mutual interactions. A simplistic analysis could see a balance between the increase of CO2 emissions on the one hand and the decision to close nuclear plants in several European countries on the other. Obviously this is not so simple.

Environmental phenomena cannot be addressed under the rule of easy compensation but must meet the criteria of severity of impact, durability, and ability to regenerate the ecosystems. In this perspective, we can consider that the beneficial effects of reducing the nuclear threat do not serve to offset the trend of strong growth that has been imposed on emissions of CO2. It will even be necessary to verify that nuclear power is effectively replaced by other energy sources such as coal, although all governments have announced their intention to move to renewable energy sources.

On the other hand, compared to the sharp increase in global CO2 emissions, it is needed an urgent call to the responsibility of all societies, both those who emit more and those who are rapidly increasing their emissions. As Professor Nicholas Stern said recently in Madrid: “We are the generation that can destroy the relationship between humans and the planet,” unless we put the necessary efforts to avoid it.

Report of the Ethics Commission for a Safe Energy Supply, 30 May 2011, Berlin, Germany (pdf)


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