Author: Dieting is a terrible metaphor for reducing emissions

Ahead of the U.N. climate conference in Paris later this year, there will be a lot of talk about how nations should apportion the burden of reducing carbon emissions. The richer, more industrialized nations have a lot of ideas about what poorer, still-developing nations should do to grow their economies without polluting the atmosphere too much.

Invariably, we might hear the term “carbon diet” come up, with its emphasis on personal sacrifice and willpower.

It’s a counterproductive metaphor, writes Lisa Margonelli, author of Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank.

In a post for Slate, as part of its “Future Tense” initiative, Margonelli writes that the “dieting” analogy is unfair to those developing countries, particularly when the richer ones are dictating the terms:

Most of the world does not need a carbon diet. Three-quarters of the global population uses just 10 percent of the world’s energy, 1 billion people lack access to electricity, and 3 billion cook their food over dung, wood, and charcoal, leading to millions of early deaths. These people are energy starved—and they need a feast, not a diet. People in Angola, Bangladesh, and Cameroon, for example, use about 250 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, while people in the U.S. use 12,246.

She goes on to argue that people in developing countries deserve the chance at economic prosperity, so rich nations should promote innovations to serve the surging energy needs in a cleaner way.

For example:

Consider air conditioning. The world uses a trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity for AC right now, and with urbanization, greater wealth, and warming, it’s projected that amount will increase tenfold by 2050, far outpacing zero-carbon electricity generation. The issue is not whether people in developing countries “should” have air conditioning—what virtue is there in dying in your apartment during a heat wave? It’s how to get it to them. AC is a crucial part of building the knowledge economy employment that will eventually bring down carbon emissions because it increases the productivity of people and computers. Without AC there would be no grand economies in Hong Kong, Atlanta, or Bangalore.

The main reason the “diet” metaphor fails is that it suggests that the world’s problems can be solved by individual willpower.

The real issue with the carbon diet is that it suggests that we can deal with climate change as easily as we might switch to gluten-free pasta and beer, via willpower and careful substitution, when what we’ll really need is some kind of revolution in our thinking and technology.

On top of all that, most diets don’t work in the long term anyway. Which some people, sadly, are about to find out, a few weeks into their well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions.

(Photo: Yao ethnic minority women cook dinner on a smoke-spewing stove in Longji, China, in 2010. Credit: CHEN WS, for

Idea emerges from Lima conference: Zero emissions by 2050

An idea is gathering momentum among several governments: Reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

As AP reports from the United Nations climate talks going on in Lima, Peru, this week:

in a historic first, dozens of governments now embrace her prescription. The global climate pact set for adoption in Paris next year should phase out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, says the London-based environmental lawyer.

“In your lifetime, emissions have to go to zero. That’s a message people understand,” said the Pakistani-born [Farhana] Yamin, who has been instrumental in getting that ambitious, some say crucial, goal into drafts being discussed at U.N. talks in Lima this week.

As The Guardian notes, the ambitious goal is spelled out in a policy document titled “ADP 2-7 agenda item 3 Elements for a draft negotiating text.”

The guidelines being hashed out in Lima could make their way onto the agenda for the next big U.N. climate conference, in Paris next year. The Guardian writes:

While a year seems like a long time, it’s not in the world of UN climate talks.

As one Australian observer pointed out, there are only six weeks of negotiating time on the UN’s schedule between now and Paris.

But if language such as “full decarbonization by 2050” were to become a reality, it basically defines an end point for the fossil fuel energy industry as we know it.

U.N. climate report: Our carbon budget will be used up in 30 years

It doesn’t get much more dire than this: A major new report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts irreversible damage if the world doesn’t begin to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions now.

According to The New York Times:

If governments are to meet their own stated goal of limiting the warming of the planet to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, above the preindustrial level, they must restrict emissions from additional fossil-fuel burning to about 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide, the panel said. At current growth rates, that budget is likely to be exhausted in something like 30 years, possibly less.