The UN’s Paris climate change conference in November doesn’t hold out much promise. Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, fossil fuel consumption has gone on growing. The Green Climate Fund launched by the UN in 2011 has attracted only €10bn to date. In 2013 subsidies for fuels responsible for greenhouse gases totalled €400bn worldwide — four times the amount allocated to renewable energy sources.
Any international agreement will fail to keep global warming within 2ºC if governments insist on protecting a production system based on accumulation, pillage and waste. We can’t meet the challenge of climate change without popular involvement; but individual and local initiatives won’t be effective without global political will. If we are to agree to consume less energy and become more frugal — changing well-established habits — we need the prospect of an improved quality of life. There can be no real energy transition without economic and social change, and without proper redistribution of income, globally and nationally. India, where 300 million people have no access to electricity, reports hundreds of thousands of deaths from air pollution each year.
In the West, sobriety stands in direct opposition to austerity, which looks like a trick for bringing about a still more inequitable distribution of wealth. Reducing carbon emissions will require massive investment in housing, public transport and renewable energy — as much as was spent on rescuing the banks in 2008. Improving energy efficiency and living conditions could create jobs, make life easier and generate substantial economies for every household.
Sobriety means a new definition of wellbeing: using less resources and more labour, fewer machines and more human intelligence; taxing fuel to discourage unnecessary air travel; making sea freight more expensive to curb the worst excesses of free trade and encourage the use of shorter shipping routes; deciding not to exploit certain mineral resources.
The industrialised countries, with only a quarter of the world’s population, have run up a hefty environmental bill. Their cumulative emissions have already raised the global temperature by 0.8ºC, and will soon double that (1). Yet they refuse to set targets that take account of past emissions or do more than talk about cooperation, though that will be indispensable. It is time to give the countries of the South the funding and technologies they need to move to development based on energy sobriety. That means quality rather than quantity.
Philippe Descamps is editor of Le Monde diplomatique.
(1) Sunita Narain, “Climat: Injustice faite au Sud” (Climate: Injustice for the South), Politique Etrangère, vol 80, no 2, Paris, summer 2015.
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