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The Future is Climate Neutral
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Historians of the future will almost certainly see the current debate on climate change as a classic example of paradigm rift, where people raised to think the world is one thing are unable to act intelligently when they discover it to be another.

The debate on whether climate change is happening is over, of course, but the debate on what we should do to prevent it from growing catastrophically worse is still stuck in a timid realm. Greenhouse action is seen as something akin to recycling or buying girl scout cookies -- morally upright but hardly essential. The reality, of course, is different: creating a climate neutral global economy is now the most pressing item on the international agenda. With the change in composition of our atmosphere has come a change in the reality of our lives few of us have yet grasped.

As the Stern Review has revealed, climate change may well become a disaster not only for biodiversity, polar regions and the vulnerable poor like those in Sub-Saharan Africa, but for the very global economy itself. Climate change is unfolding as not just a threat to the environment, but to civilization itself.

We can't avoid climate change: it's here, and it's gong to get worse, no matter what we do. What we can do, however, is minimize our risk of truly catastrophic climate change by acting decisively now. To do that, many experts say, we need to slash greenhouse gases by at least 70%, as soon as possible. This will require the cooperation of individuals, small businesses, corporations, public institutions and governing bodies. Nobody earns an exemption here, but ideally the increased participation of entities large and small with make it gradually easier to make reductions without making huge sacrifices, financially or otherwise.

A number of companies have realized this. We try to keep tabs on the businesses who are leading the way in early adoption of strict climate policies that can serve as models for those still clinging to regulation-free, high-impact practices. Numerous options exist for companies to start mitigating their carbon output, from carbon trading schemes to taxes and credits. Or as Joel Makower says, "In just the three weeks since New Year's..."

  • U.K. retail giant Marks & Spencer announced a plan that will lead to the company becoming carbon neutral by 2012.

  • introduced Earthforce, an initiative to create a carbon neutral in 2007.

  • Dell Computer announced a carbon-neutral initiative that plants trees for customers to offset the carbon impact of electricity used to power their computers.

  • Pacific Gas & Electric announced that it would use biodiesel made from soybean oil, along with solar energy and carbon credits, to render Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-inauguration celebration carbon neutral.

  • A new exclusively business class British airline, Silverjet, was launched, saying it be the world's first carbon neutral airline, including a mandatory carbon contribution within its fares to offset its emissions.

  • Package delivery company DHL announced that it would be the first logistics company to offer carbon-neutral delivery.

  • The SXSW music and film festival said that this year's event would be carbon neutral.

  • Just today, TerraPass announced the "world’s first carbon balanced retail product."

The ability for a company to boast "climate neutrality" is gaining cachet in certain industries.

That cachet has spread into the investment circle, where integrated climate policies earn high marks from investors who have an interest in the long-term viability of new companies (which at this point is predicated to greater and lesser degrees on environmental responsibility). Investors can now demand climate disclosure from their beneficiaries as a means of upholding transparency around climate impact as a company matures.

Of course, one of the greatest economic incentives for combatting climate change comes from the ever more compromised ability of insurance companies to assess risks and make reliable predictions about weather events.

Around the world, cities are taking into their own hands the task of reducing climate impacts, from San Francisco to London to Seattle (though Seattle's Green Ribbon Commission plan has proven stronger in vision than action). We even have an even bolder set of initiatives emerging as Ed Mazria pushes forward with his Architecture 2030 agenda.

Education is changing. Simply put, a contemporary education which doesn't involve a primary focus on sustainability, global systems and rapid innovation is of little worth. Luckily, a whole slew of great tools is beginning to emerge, from active instructional aides like school neutral to the 2010 Imperative, which aims, as Sarah reported the other day, to "reconfigure [design school] curriculum starting in 2007 such that it intrinsically factors disengagement from fossil fuel addiction into every design problem a student approaches."

Provinces, states and national governments are jumping forward in their own ways, from California's Carbon Emissions Law to Sweden's plan to go fossil fuel-free by 2020. Indeed, some governments are now seeing tougher regulation as a means to build competitiveness, since carbon limitations are clearly in our future, but doing more with less is economically advantageous now, while, as Japan has shown that ecological limits and economic prosperity can easily go hand-in-hand.

Indeed, whole new business models are beginning to emerge as entrepreneurs see the opportunity to deliver desired services at a fraction of the footprint, from DVDs to driving time.

These changes will very quickly begin to unfold in our everyday lives. Not only will Spring arrive earlier (it seemed to show up in December in New York this year)

Tesco, the world's fifth-largest retail chain, will now be offering a "climate label" on all its products, measuring the energy used to make it and the emissions for which it is responsible:

Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive, said Tesco aimed to become a world leader in helping create a low-carbon economy and that effort would require a “mass movement? among consumers.

“The market is ready. Customers tell us they want our help to do more in the fight against climate change,? said Sir Terry. “We have to make sustainability a significant, mainstream driver of consumption.?

Expect to see greater and greater availability of consumer-level climate neutrality tools, from home appliances, like the Wattson, to better means of measuring our personal carbon footprints.

And expect, too, to see offsets -- which suffer currently from a number of uncertainties -- undergo real redesign and standards-setting making them a more useful (and less dubious) way of bringing our carbon overdrafts down to zero. This is something more and more of us will want. Indeed, we expect that being personally climate neutral will be perceived as an ethical necessity among the ecologically aware before the end of the decade.

Each of us pledging to create our own little personal Kyoto won't solve the problem, though. For that, we need widespread action with the full force of the law behind it. Indeed, we need an effective international framework for reducing greenhouse emissions everywhere. Contraction and convergence is, many people believe, the best global approach to tackling large-scale CO2 reductions in an equitable way:

Contraction and Convergence simultaneously moves towards a reduced overall carbon emissions total and a universal per-person carbon emissions allowance. The convergence aspect, according to this plan, would be settled by 2050; by then, all nations would have the same emissions-per-person target. The plan includes some emissions trading, but all nations would be included, and the restrictions would eventually be more stringent than in the Kyoto treaty.

(There is also this interesting video explaining the basics.)

Now, not every answer to the crisis we face boils down to "reduce our climate emissions." It is important that we avoid carbon blindness. It is important that we begin to plan to increase the resilience of our essential systems to climate disruption even as we work to limit the extent of that disruption. It is vital that we begin anticipating the effects on natural systems of rising seas and extreme weather shifts (from a shift in ocean currents to runaway melting of the permafrost) and tipping points even as we work to preserve and restore natural functions. We even need to start thinking about how we'll help the hundreds of millions of climate refugees-to-be.

Our responses to all of these challenges are critical. But ultimately, none of them will matter if we don't stop spewing the pollution that's causing the problem in the first place. On a planet which is a couple degrees warmer and where the weather is consistently weird, we may still be able to manage, to fight hard and make it through -- but a planet of heat waves and constant catastrophe will likely overwhelm much of our ability to act. Which of the two we get will be decided largely by what we do over the next decade or two.

It's time to start building a climate neutral world.


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Excellent summary. "Paradigm rift" may prove to be the biggest challenge of all. Accepting that climate destabilization is going to get worse during our lifetimes no matter what we do, and still acting as aggressively and creatively as possible to avoid something far worse, is going to take more gumption than the human race has yet shown.

A sense of possibility about creating the future. That's one particularly actionable definition of "optimism." That's what Worldchanging cultivates so beautifully.

Posted by: Ted on 22 Jan 07

I was listening to a Denver talk radio show the other day, where the discussion was about the Doomsday clock, and one of the hosts clearly wasn't confident hat global warming was a human-caused problem. In an e-mail exchange later with me, he said 'I've heard competent debate on both sides of the issue.' Great, 95% of the scientists agree, and some guy thinks it's debateable. Even if it was, is it worth the risk of ignoring?! And of course, he's in the position to influence a lot of listeners.

Posted by: Erik on 22 Jan 07

This is an excellent summary of where we stand at present. Please, continue these summaries on your site, as we need the reminder daily far more than we need to know about some new unneeded 'bamboo handbag' that only feeds our delusion of shopping our way to a better world.

Additionally, these articles are essential in that there is a lot of work to be done to clear up Al Gore's misleading film. That is, never does Gore point the fingers at the political and corporate causes behind so much of the actual polluting and inaction on climate change. One walks away from the film feeling that incremental personal adjustments (light bulbs? please. they account for a miniscule fraction of U.S. grid consumption) will save the day. Gore never takes his paymasters to task and this is not only disingenuine, but quite harmful to the cause. If we don't publicly address the root causes and the greatest polluters, our efforts will be largely wasted. Certainly, the average Worldchanging reader is fully aware, but the average "Inconvenient Truth" watcher/lecture attendee may well not realize that fully half the information is being left out. I know WC has links to Gore, but we need to call on him to do more, to be more honest.

Posted by: Tod Brilliant on 23 Jan 07


I agree with most of what you said. Recognizing that we are "a part of" not "a part from" the earth will take much more than changing lightbulbs. We need to change everything. I am hopeful that the climate crisis will help our children remember the truths we have forgotton but indigenous people around the world recognize.

That said, you need to approach people from where they are. Most Americans still think there is a debate around climate change. That will change quickly, due to Exxon's funding shift and the release of the USCAP report among other developments, but until it does our most urgent work is to let people know what is happening. I know from experience that if you talk about crapping in a bucket to compost your humanure, people look at you with a blank stare. If however they recognize the growing scarcity of water, our aging sewer infrastructure and it's pollution by design, 'nutrient mining' as some call non-organic farming and the tremendous carbon footprint of a simple head of lettuce, they begin to see the wisdom of waste=food. (too far, too fast I know. you get the point)

Gore's film is very light on solutions by design. Its purpose was to educate people that there is a climate crisis. I have been trained by him on the powerpoint used in the film through The Climate Project and am making presentations throughout my state. I believe he has done what can to get the work done and placing blame is not relevant. There is too much work to be done.

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete" -R. Buckminster Fuller

Lettuce (ha, ha, ha) create the world we want. If you do not want your money going to multinational corporations start a co-op. Buy local. Start a walking school bus. Brew biodiesel. Grow food. Create a walkable town. Set your intention and do it!

Posted by: Daniel N Smith Jr on 24 Jan 07

I concur with the article and am glad to see the list of corporations listed which endeavor to be climate neutral. Education is changing, and these educational changes must be dynamic to continue to reach various audiences.

An Inconvenient Truth is a powerful educational tool that has reached people who might not have received the message about global warming otherwise. I think it's terrific there are people like Daniel Smith (who posted the last comment) out there spreading the message even further in their own backyards.

Illuminating the issue for people is the most important first step. Although there are many of us among the "converted," there are many more who need to be introduced to the issue. I believe it is effective to use the means that Gore used in An Inconvenient Truth where he highlighted the issue, but did not proceed with a campaign to blast corporate polluters. The next step is to look for the local and global solutions. There are plenty of people who are anxious to point fingers, including myself from time to time, yet I remind myself I need to be part of the be the change I want to see in the world, to quote Ghandi.

Posted by: Libby Lewis on 24 Jan 07

The simplest understandings can make a huge difference. The environmental issues may seem insurmountable at first glance, but if every one of us who gives a damn can educated others to do so too we will be on our way. It starts with you....walking to work, recycling everything possible, eating organic, making green consumer demands in your own community. Start with you and radiate outwards, it is the only way to begin the healing process.

Posted by: Angela on 25 Jan 07

A well articulated article.But as mentioned in the article how will the different levels of society will work together,individually or collectively to neutralize or mitigate the impacts of climate change.I think the answer for for this seem to be multidisciplinary in nature touching economic,ethic,politics and sociology.
This is in terms of finding how to make one to act willingly, motivate him facilitate his action and of course support him and mould him when he digress.

Posted by: Aliyu on 25 Jan 07

10 days ago I returned from a short visit to Oromia, Ethiopia. The purpose of the trip was to establish if improved access to good weather and climate information could aid the development of subsistence farming. It could.

Never mind whether climate change is happening or not, the farmers of Oromia aren't aware of the debate, most of them have never even seen or heard a weather forecast in their lives. They work damned hard to feed their families, and what affects them hugely is the existing variability of the climate, and no climate scenario that I'm aware of suggest that variability of rains will reduce in future.

Better use of land and water through small scale irrigation perhaps informed by models of future climate, balanced risk taking through the application of seasonal forecasts and all the other stuff that modern science and technology has to offer in better crop varieties, more efficient farming methods, etc. could at a rough guess improve food production in Ethiopia and the like by 10% or more, despite climate change. But it needs action from developed countries. If we address this now, then perhaps we won't feel so bad about trying to create a climate change safety bubble of turbines, biofuels and carbon neutral travel for our rich selves. Otherwise I don't reckon we deserve it.

Posted by: Michael Saunby on 31 Jan 07

Before we get too hard on Gore for not making strong enough statements, let's remember a few things:
1. The scope and threat of global warming and catastrophic climate change is a daunting enough concept to absorb without being told what to do about it at the same time. Tacking on a lot of demands for drastic lifestyle changes would run the risk of overwhelming people into inaction, yielding no change at all.
2. The suggestion to change lightbulbs is not as innoccuous as it seems. I'm not sure where everyone else is getting their energy consumption data, but according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), lighting accounts for a quarter of domestic consumption and 60% of commercial energy consumption on average. Moreover, the US devotes approximately 25% of its entire electric power consumption to lighting, at a cost of $37 billion a year. If it represents a full quarter of our nation's electric bill, it certainly isn't a trivial figure, especially when you consider that 90% of the coal consumed by the US is used to run electric power plants.

My point here is that while I agree that there are many more things that people can do to become more environmentally conscientious, changing lightbulbs is an easy yet important baby step towards raising consciousness and creating momentum for action. I know it worked for myself and my wife, and we have since gone on to take much larger steps to raise awareness in the public and support others in their efforts to change. It also helps keep the movie and its principles from being rejected out of hand by those on the other side of the political spectrum who need to become aware and involved of the issue as much (or more so) than those who already take it seriously. Starting off too aggressively runs the risk of having people actively reject a good cause simply because of the tone of the message. Change will always be uncomfortable, but small steps will open the door for larger ones. You'll find that most people feel good about switching out their light bulbs and want to go even further.

Posted by: Patrick Clough on 1 Feb 07

In all seriousness we should include renewed investigation into mind altering substances that could contribute to enhancement of our experiential relationship to the earth and its cycles. ie: a spiritual component must be included in all forms from meditation(long process) to chemicals (short term), yet we need more work on synthesizing drugs that are relatively controlable by the user. All leading edge investigation and experimentation will be needed to quickly prepare for the upcoming years of socio-climatic change.

Posted by: David Stanley Miller on 4 Feb 07



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