In Focus, Okology

Peter Bunyard: “It’s not certain that the EU is going to reduce their emissions”

Cimate change concerns everyone. It shown on news, it’s on every politician’s lips and it’s discussed at international summits held to address the matter.

Noel Hernández

We know that we have to do something but what, how and when lose themselves in ambiguous and contradictory messages. If we listen to our leaders we feel as if the economy will always be the number one priority and that any environmental policy change will only be tangential, never radical. On the other hand it isn’t always easy to decipher the data, deadlines or measures dictated by the scientific world.

Who should we listen to? To Peter Bunyard, for example . Internationally recognised as an expert in the matter and an Amazon specialist, he is a co-founder of The Ecologist, the British magazine which has championed the ecologist movement since 1970.

Bunyard graduated from the universities of Cambridge and Harvard in the 60s. He specialised in nuclear and energy issues and has also written and co-authored more than a dozen books (amongst them, ‘Extreme Weather’, ‘Gaia in Action: Science of the Living Earth’ and ‘Nuclear Britain’). At present he combines writing with consultancy work for the faculty of Environmental Engineering at the University of Santo Tomás, in Bogotá. It is from Colombia that he answered The Prisma’s questions which form the following interview:

The feeling is that the Climate Change summit in Copenhagen was a real failure. Is that the case?

Without doubt COP15 did not achieve what it set out to do and instead of making a commitment, the United States and China, (countries which emit more than half of the world’s greenhouse gases) made an agreement to ensure that the average temperature of the planet’s surface does not exceed 2° C. The offer from the United States to reduce their emissions by 17% in the next 10 years would only represent a reduction by 3% compared to what they were in 1990. Meanwhile, the European Union has promised to reduce its emissions by 20% compared to 1990.

Although President Obama promised a reduction in emissions, there is no guarantee that the US will honour its pledge, given that the senate still needs to approve this. With the election of the Republican Scott Brown from Massachusetts, everything is still uncertain. China, which keeps on building thermal plants using carbon fuel and wind turbines, is promising to improve the efficiency of energy use, with the aim of reducing the quantity of energy involved in the production of goods. However, as it refuses to reduce its economic growth rate, it is unlikely that the country will manage to reduce its emissions. On the other hand, COP15 recognised the importance of promoting mechanisms such as REDD (Reduction of Emissions Caused by Deforestation and Degradation of Tropical Forests), which the NGOs and governments are involved with. It will not be an easy process and there are many obstacles, such as providing a monitoring system accurate enough to prevent infractions.

Which countries are least willing to fulfil their responsibilities?

Nations such as Saudi Arabia do not like the idea of looking for alternatives to petrol and therefore their governments have given greater weight to those who deny that mankind is responsible for causing climatic change.

On the other hand, the climatologist James Hansen of the NASA and the Goddard Space Research Institute in New York, has said that we need to find a way to reduce the concentration of greenhouses gases from 390 parts per million (volume) to no more than 350 parts per million during the next 40 years, if we wish to avoid irreversible climate changes. It is obvious that no agreements which will allow us to achieve James Hansen’s objective have emerged from COP15.

Do you have any confidence in initiatives and forums such as those that took place, including the previous Kyoto Conference?

I doubt that Kyoto and other conferences can do enough to prevent the disasters caused by the climate change which we instigated. However, it would be a catastrophe if this type of dialogue did not exist at all between governments and scientists. This is why the ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’ has a vital role. The problem is that the conclusions it reached must be agreed by all, whilst at times the most radical point of view is the one which is right.

Experts such as yourself have been talking about climate change for years, but nothing has happened, nothing has changed.

The short answer is that we are trapped in an economic system that needs to be expanded and which could expand forever if there weren’t any limitations. Our usage and consumption of our planet’s resources has already exceeded the earth’s ability to recoup them and it is predicted that in half a century we will use one and a half times the earth’s resources.

How can we stop harming our planet whilst still continuing with our lives? We don’t have any other option than to look for a wholesome way of living which exists in harmony with the environment, such as, for example, local food production and the generation and use of energy.

Everyone agrees that global warming is the result of the actions of mankind. However, there are conflicting opinions within the scientific arena.

The study of the climate is not an exact science. Therefore, there is much room for controversy. However, the data accumulated during the last century shows that global warming is a genuine phenomenon. I am convinced that no-one can understand the climate at any given point in the history of the planet without taking into account that life and the earth have evolved together with complex interactions between the biological and geophysical elements. The majority of the changes that we are experiencing today are a result of the brutal way in which we have changed the surface of the earth. Therefore, if we waste time debating whether mankind is guilty of global warming, we could go past the critical point, the tipping point, from which there is no way back. The emphasis of the debate shouldn’t just be on the emission of greenhouse gases, but rather on what we can do to avoid the destruction of ecosystems.

Has mankind caused less harm in Latin America?

Until the end of the Second World War, Latin America still had many of its ecosystems. Unfortunately the extraordinary loss of this biodiversity during the last sixty years is a fact, demonstrated by the rate of deforestation caused by cattle farming in every country in central and South America, above all in the Amazon. If we put an end to the destruction right now, we would have some hope for the region to act as a sort of ecological centre – a health centre – for the rest of the world, as there are still indigenous people who, due to their culture, understand the connection between nature and the well being of the human race. I see that science, when applied in an open and intelligent way, is in the process of coinciding with traditional knowledge.

Are there measures to solve the environmental chaos in which we live?

The governments, thanks to the scientific information gathered on the environment, have the intellectual resources at hand to take the necessary decisions to prevent environmental disasters, or at least reduce their impact. However, they worry more about maintaining the daily financial status quo and their popularity, which translates in supporting the interests of multinational companies, whether through industrial production or agriculture. In this sense, popular pressure is important, as it creates awareness and provides a platform for people to challenge the government’s anti-environmental policy.

Do you think that President Obama is interested in demonstrating that his government is different for Bush’s in terms of environmental policies?

I believe so, but Obama’s powers are limited and without the support of the majority of senators and congressmen, he won’t be able to achieve his environmental objectives. The reality is that there is a lot of political and financial apathy in every country, and the US is not an exception and that is why we hope that Obama can have a second mandate to allow him to persuade the country of the need to promote a fierce environmental policy.

How do you see the South American governments in terms of their environmental policies?

There are huge differences; without a doubt the Morales government in Bolivia has turned into a political body that recognises the environment as an issue of great importance to mankind. Ecuador has also demonstrated to be environmentally conscious and has put forward the idea that not only human beings have rights, but also nature. Ecuador has taken a big initiative, offering to safeguard the Amazon’s oil reserves whilst receiving compensation, with the idea of using the money to preserve it.

What responsibility does the UK, as well as other European countries, have in terms of the current natural disasters?

The fact that Great Britain and other countries belonging to the European Union are offering the poorest countries technical support financed by a fund which aims to alleviate the most severe climatic impacts, suggests that they consider themselves at least partly responsible for what may happen in the near future. Obviously, the same European countries hope to benefit from the investment, whether from the sales of products or the provision of consultants and teams of technicians.

(Translated by Laura Barton)

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