'Time for a Revolution': Ways to Avoid a Climate Catastrophe

By Philip Bethge and

The rapid change in the world's climate and shrinking oil and natural gas reserves are forcing a radical shift in the way we think about energy. Declining prosperity seems unavoidable unless the global community chooses a more sustainable approach to producing and consuming energy.

Editor's Note: Humanity only has 13 years left to take the actions needed to prevent a climate change hard landing. According to the recent United Nations climate report, annual carbon dioxide emissions must have begun to drop sharply by 2020 at the very latest -- and that just to ensure that global temperatures do not increase by more than an anticipated 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. If left uncurbed, however, emissions could lead to an increase of up to 6 degrees. Right now, the trend in emissions is pointing to the latter: The amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the world's population increases each year. This happens in part because of the economic ambitions of newly industrializing countries like China and India, but also because of highly wasteful Western lifestyles. With this essay, SPIEGEL ONLINE launches a new series: "New Energies -- The Path away from Climate Catastrophe." The series presents a host of ideas aimed at helping to solve the problem of climate change.

Have you taken a shower today? Have you sipped a cup of hot coffee, stepped out of your warm apartment and driven to work? Booked your next vacation flight?

People have never enjoyed as much material comfort as they do today. More than one-tenth of the world's population own cars, and 4 billion people have electricity in their homes. Growing prosperity has been the goal of civilization since people began to populate the earth. That prosperity is measurable -- by a currency called energy.

Mankind burns up to 10 million tons of crude oil a day, 12.5 million tons of hard coal and 7.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas. All this consumption is accompanied by the creeping certainty that supplies will run out in only a few decades. Besides, the evidence that things are on the decline has never been more clear than since early February of this year, when the report issued by United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came with the alarming news that mankind's thirst for energy is changing Spaceship Earth in a way unprecedented in history.

Temperatures on the planet could increase by up to 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 and sea levels could rise by up to 59 centimeters (almost two feet), climate experts predict. But the most shocking aspect of the report is not the forecasts themselves, which barely differ from those inssued in the IPCC's last report in 2001. The real bombshell is the certainty with which scientists are willing to assign blame for the calamity.

"Feb. 2 will go down in history as the date when uncertainty over whether people are involved with climate change on this planet was set aside once and for all," says Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Program (UNEP). Scholars' collective diagnosis is that the globe is overheating because carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, is gushing out of 800 million automobile exhaust pipes, because power plants worldwide pump additional billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and because thousands of hectares of rain forest are being torched by the hour to make room for soybean and palm oil plantations. The CO2 released through these various forms of combustion is blanketing the earth like the roof of a greenhouse.

The consequences are melting glaciers and ice caps, devastating droughts, epidemics and storms. Natural disasters like those in Jakarta, where 340,000 people lost their homes to muddy flood waters after heavy monsoon rains, are seen as warning signs of the impending global disaster.

Chirac's understatement

"This is the time for a revolution, not for half-hearted actions," outgoing French President Jacques Chirac was quick to announce after the IPCC study was released. Chirac urged a "great international mobilization against the ecological crisis and for environmentally friendly growth." He wasn't exaggerating. The actions needed to respond to the increasing temperature curve of the planet must be far more radical than political declarations of intent and the call for new UN groups.

The economic branch that is the basis of every industrial society must radically change. Only a comprehensive turnaround in energy policy and consumption can put the brakes on climate change. "The world's political leaders have recognized that present energy policy cannot secure our energy future in a sustainable way," Claude Mandil, head of the International Energy Agency in Paris, noted in a recent book on the issue.

Humans began their great experiment with energy 1.5 million years ago by taming fire. Then, in antiquity, muscular humans forged swords and plowshares over coal fires. In the 19th century, oil rapidly began to fuel the human civilization process.

Graphic: Worldwide energy consumption

Graphic: Worldwide energy consumption

The whole cosmos is now involved. If humans want to continue their triumphant advance on the earth, then turning away from fossil energy must be at the top of the agenda. Reconditioning the energy supply to a sustainable energy economy is overdue, and not only because of global warming. Two factors, climate change and the scarcity of world petroleum and natural gas reserves, have long been intertwined as a truly epochal challenge.

An energy economy at a crossroads

The reorganization has already begun. Wind turbines with an output of nearly 170 megawatts rotate off the coast of the Danish island of Lolland. In southern Spain, a consortium with German participation is building the largest solar thermal power plant in the world. With the help of thousands of shining parabolic reflectors, Andasol 1 will provide enough electricity for 200,000 people by as soon as 2008. The demand for biofuel has become so great that it is already making some farmers in the US Midwest very rich.

"The worldwide energy economy has reached a crossroads," declared Peter Hennicke, president of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. If the world continues to consume fossil fuels as in the past, European Union Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik predicts, carbon dioxide emissions will increase by two-thirds by 2050. EU experts expect close to a doubling of the price of oil to $110 per barrel. The reason is population growth. The earth's current population, 6.5 billion people, will likely grow to 8.2 billion by 2030. Humanity will need 53 percent more energy than today, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates. The demand for electricity is expected to double.

On the other hand, the time is ripe for reorganization, with a renewal of capacities overdue in many industrial countries. Modernizing power plants and building new ones will cost $5.2 trillion worldwide by 2030.

What forms of energy could reconcile global tough talk with climate protection goals? How can the huge thirst for energy in threshold countries like China and India be satisfied without further damage to the eco-sphere? Finally, will it be possible in the end for everyone to have everything, or is a new discussion about the limits of growth overdue?

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