Writing from the shores of Lake Geneva, the snow has come down to lake level early this year, bringing to mind scientists’ recent suggestions that melting polar ice would lead to harsher winters in the Northern hemisphere. Not a prospect I personally look forward to, especially as with less than a week to go to the next UN-led climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico, expectations of progress are being played down. Heads of state will not be attending as they did at last year’s meeting in Copenhagen, which did not deliver on expectations. Leading – and somewhat depressed – climate change officials and campaigners suggest a deal may be years away, even as the World Meteorological Organisation announced today that concentrations of the key greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached their highest level since pre-industrial times. The resulting warming could lead to more extreme weather events, as well as continued sea level rises. As Reuters reported: “I’m a little depressed about Cancun,” said Al Gore, the climate campaigner and former U.S. Vice President. “The problem is not going away, it’s getting steadily worse.”
What is the world doing about it? As demonstrated at the recent G20 meeting, it seems global leaders, whether heads of state or environment ministers, are getting stuck into a rut of endless discussion based on national interests rather than global issues. The likely result: No decisions (again). As early as August, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed doubt that we would have a new agreement on global warming this time around. And it has been a while since the world took collective action. The last UN Climate Convention was agreed globally in 1992, while the US stands alone among the developed nations in not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol which drives carbon pricing and after 15 years will need extension in 2012.
One of the key issues stalling the climate talks this time will be a continued stand-off between the two largest greenhouse gas emitters, the US and China. Each says the other must do more to raise their targets on reducing emissions levels by 2020. The problem of the US is a significant one. Even before mid-term elections which weakened Barack Obama’s power, his efforts to push through a bill to plan to curb emissions by 17% versus 2005 levels by 2020, were at a standstill after domestic political and industrial resistance. Now, the prospect of getting the US Houses to ratify an international treaty on climate change seems to be wishful thinking. Without the US, China is unlikely to change its voluntary targets, which leaves the rest of the world the option of moving forward again without the US and potentially with less than optimal targets from China. The question is whether the impact of a treaty without the two main players will be worth much.
What can be hoped for in Mexico is that progress will be made on the pledge made last year in Copenhagen by richer, developed nations to contribute US$100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries fund climate change adaptation and low-carbon pathways. There is also hope that agreement will be reached on setting up a Global Climate Fund to direct use of the money towards those most in need. For their part, developing nations hope for better terms for transferring patented green technology from richer nations. Finally, delegates aim to make progress on the complex issue of compensating poorer nations for protecting their forests, which are critical to the planet’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide.
These aims are significant and, if achieved, would go some way towards tackling the climate crisis which daily steps closer. But small steps in a protracted process are not enough; climate change is happening much faster than decisions. Collective action is required — which brings us to the role of business. In some quarters, business action to voluntarily curb emissions and develop clean technologies and sustainable practices is seen as a “silver bullet.” It’s not, but it is important. One hope, which is not enough but is inspiring, is that some of the many innovations which are happening in technology and business approaches will help us to find some answers to the way forward.
This is why I am enthusiastic about the whole host of ideas around kinetic (or piezoelectric) energy. Businesses, governments and academics are experimenting with a huge range of ideas to make what we do every day, like walking or just existing, work for us and for the planet. Take Stockholm’s Central Station: By this month the body heat of the rush-hour throng moving to and from the underground stations should be being captured and helping to provide 5-10% of the needed space heating for the building next door. Piezoelectric sidewalks and dance floors are being pioneered in the US and Japan, to harvest energy from our footfalls and dancing to power anything from public and commercial lighting to cell phones. Scientists, harnessing the potential of nanotechnology, are even working on self-illuminating shoes. If we can generate enough energy to charge our ever-increasing array of gadgets with our feet or body heat this lends a whole new meaning to people power
Don’t forget the vibrations we give off as we move or make objects move. There are increasing numbers of researchers looking into self-generating power, which could eventually lead to the proverbial “perpetual motion” or “perpetual power” machines. Even on small-scale devices such as pacemakers or toys these advances could take the place of more expensive and less environmentally friendly batteries.
We need to encourage and support innovation and new technologies – and I hope that some of the kinetic energy advances will find their way into the technology transfers to developing economies, perhaps via the Cancun talks. Without this and in the absence of transnational cooperation, the next 20-30 years may see dramatic changes in our living conditions globally. Time to figure out how your footsteps can make a difference!