Environment guru Lester Brown: 'Every day counts'
The book is orientated towards four goals: slow down global warming, fight poverty, slow down demographic growth and restore ecosystems. Brown: ‘I didn’t take as a starting point for the book what is politically feasible, but what is necessary’. Just before a recent visit of Brown to Stavros Dimas, the European commissioner of Environment, MO* caught the environment guru for an interview.
Why do you think our civilisation is in danger?
Brown: The list of unsolved problems gets longer every minute. First we experienced the marching deforestation and desertification, then we noticed the exhaustion of fish populations and the threat of water shortages. Now climate change takes all our attention. Especially in developing countries the problem of demographic growth needs to be added to this list, also soil erosion and land shortages increase as time passes by. Today, these stress situations manifest themselves economically. Water shortages are directly linked to food shortages, and in the coming years we will see this problem increasing even more. The chances are high that the Himalayan glaciers will have disappeared by 2030. 370 million people depend upon the water of the Indian Ganges-river in order to survive. Also in China vital rivers are fed by those glaciers. Once water supply stops, the food supplies will be in danger. Apart from this becoming a problem for China and India it will also affect the rest of the world. Looking in the past, the reason why civilisations disappeared was often linked to food supplies. As for example the Sumerians, the Mayans and the early residents of Greenland. It could be that the weak point in our economies will be food supply again.
Is the production of biofuel increasing the pressure?
Brown: Over the last seven years, consumption of grains exceeded production. The grain reserves are now smaller then ever. By the end of this year in the US, as much as one third of the grain production will be used in order to produce biofuel. This market pushes up grain prices everywhere in the world. This is no longer a temporary phenomenon: we are facing a new situation. However, my biggest concern is the growing list of failed states. This list will increase more when governments are no longer able to guarantee food security for their population. At the moment countries like Russia and Argentina limit their export of grain in order to keep the prices of grain stable within the boundaries of their country. These measurements worsen the situation for the rest of the world. Two billion poor spend over 50 to 60 percent of their incomes on food. For those, doubling the food prices would be a disaster. For me, failed states are an early warning for a failed civilisation.
Do you think the future will bring conflicts around food security?
Brown: I rather think there will be local conflicts which are driven by food shortages and get translated in ethnic or racial conflicts. For example, the conflict in Darfur is based on land issues between farmers and shepherds. Since 1954, the cattle population has tripled and due to overgrazing grass areas have been converted into desert. The conflict is about access to land and that is what we see happening in other countries like Chad and Nigeria.
In Plan B you try to address simultaneously a cluster of different problems.
Brown: Plan A is no longer an option to me. Plan B 3.0 is a appeal for an approach beyond all conventional schemes. The known structures are no longer sufficiently addressing the enormous challenges facing us in the near future. Plan B is an attempt to get things started by working simultaneously in 4 different fields. To address global warming by reducing CO2 emissions by eighty percent by 2020. To restore the ecosystems, not only ameliorates global warming, it also can improve the sustainability of food production. To stabilise food production and to fight poverty (two problems that are very much related to each other). The international poverty gap will lead to even more conflict the moment the richer part of the world will take away food from the poorer part. These options which strongly oppose each other, are the options available today. What we need in order to make those choices is strong leadership.
How do you assess the effort of the UN?
Brown: Given the high speed with which the situation evolves, international negotiation processes such as the ones about climate change become obsolete. Ratifying an agreement takes years, and we no longer have that amount of time. Individual countries will take action on their own about what they perceive as necessary and that is fine. New Zealand is a excellent example. Without looking at the actions of other countries, the government pushed forward three effective measures: increase the electricity production from renewable energy from 70 until 90 percent, halve the use of petrol by 2040 and plant 200.000 ha of trees by 2010, which equals 31 trees per inhabitant. This enables the capture of an enormous amount of CO2. On national level, the US policy towards climate change is a shameful vacuum, however governors and mayors are acting very dynamically on this particular issue. We all know the example of Schwazenegger in California. However, the most important initiative today comes from the Republican Governor of Texas, Rick Barry. He works on a alternative energy project that implies the building of wind farms and transmission cables, good for 23 000 megawatt. That provides as much energy as 23 coal fired power plants. This is no longer an example of marginal thinking. This initiative can satisfy the residential energy need of the 22 million Texan inhabitants. By 2014, the province of Ontario, the most densely populated province of Canada, will shut down all 5 of its coal fired power plants. One of these has already been closed down. Ontario acts without looking at what is done in other places.
We thought the EU was the worldwide trend setter.
Brown: That isn’t completely correct. A lot is happening in the US. At the beginning of last year, the ministry of energy published a list of 159 coal fired power plants that it would like to start up. In the course of that year, 59 were refused their license. Another 50 have been brought to court and have to be justified. The remaining should reconsider their project seriously. In the end only a handful will be built. All of this resulted from the fact that Wall Street turned its back on the coal industry. Three big investment banks - Citygroup, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase - have issued directives to coal fired power plants and no longer provide loans to them unless they can prove to be economically profitable after the implementation of the government restrictions on CO2 emmisions. That is the beginning of the end of the coal industry in the US. The fact that this industry is slowing down in the US will influence other parts of the world.
How do you explain the slow speed with which politicians react to the problem?
Brown: According to me, this is linked to the complexity of society. As Jozef Tainter, professor at the Universidad Nacional Autonomia de Mexico, presents in his book The collapse of complex societies, as a society evolves it also becomes more complex. This continues until a point that it is no longer capable of maintaining that degree of complexity. I believe we are approaching that point. We keep bouncing into the interaction of three systems: the economical system, the ecosystem of the earth and the socio-political system. Each of those three systems is very complex in itself. For example, even if one only looks at the ecosystem of the earth and the problem of climate change, one discovers how complex it is. Framing and answering all those problems exceeds our capacity.
Nevertheless you make an attempt with Plan B 3.0.
Brown: It is a “plan of hope” because the required technology, economical instruments and financial means are available - for global warming, demography, poverty and ecosystems. It is encouraging because the moment one succeeds in intervening in one of the four domains, at the same time one has a positive impact on another domain. By helping women to escape from poverty and enable them to study, one slows down demographic growth. By recovering biodiversity, one improves the climate. The problems are interrelated, and so are the solutions.
Does this count for poverty reduction?
Brown: The famous economist Jeffrey Sachs from the Earth Institute at the University of Columbia, made a pertinent statement about this issue: ‘The tragic irony of this moment is that the rich countries are so rich and the the poor countries are so poor, that some tenths of one percent of the GDP of the rich countries, spread over the coming decades, could achieve what has never been possible in history: provide the basic needs for health and education for all poor children in this world. How much more tragedies do we, the US, have to experience before we realise that it also depends on us to make a more prosperous and safer place of this world, not only by military force but by respecting life and making it flourish?’ It is impossible to make an exact and precise price tag for the reversal of current trends, however, I made an estimation. In order to meet the social needs, the price would be about 77 billion dollars, and for the recovery of the biodiversity, the water tables and the fish population, it would be about 113 billion dollars. Together that is 190 billion dollars a year. That equals one third of the military budget of the US and one sixth of the global military budget.
Changing the current trends, can still take decades.
Brown: We don’t have that amount of time left. I still remember the first years of the Second World War. On the 7th of December 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbour. The answer of the US didn’t take long. The 6th of January, Franklin Roosevelt announced in his State of the Union: ‘We will produce 45 000 tanks, 60 000 air planes, 20 000 artillery arms and 6 million tons of shipping, because we are going to war on all oceans.’ At the beginning of the war, the US went through an economic depression, however, even in that depression economy, they kept producing two to three million cars. The car industry was the largest economic power at that moment. Roosevelt ordered the car industry to convert to the production of arms. Car sales where prohibited and the industry switched over to a war industry. The production targets were met and even exceeded. Even today it is difficult to capture what the US economy achieved in those days. A similar effort is what we need to do today.
How do you see these efforts on a concrete level?
Brown: Worldwide, if we replace every incandescent light bulb by CFL bulbs, it is possible in the short term to close down 705 coal fired power plants and 2260 in the long term. The US has an enormous potential for wind energy and is able to develop this. Algeria, which consists for the biggest part of desert, is planning to build installations for solar energy in the desert. Those will have a capacity of six megawatt. The country has created a ministry that is responsible for researching ways of organising the transmission for export of this energy via cables on the bottom of the sea connecting to Europe. We have to get rid of waste and achieve efficiency in transport. In the US this means a switch over from cars running on petrol to cars using hydroelectricity which one can plug in at night to recharge. Poor countries should strive to develop this kind of new technologies directly. Individual behaviour change is important. however, the most important issue is to change the system. Reorganising the tax system, so that organisations which change their processes in a good direction get rewarded and other ones get punished. This kind of measure could achieve a good start in the right direction. Also it could pay for the conservation and restoration of the ecosystems.
The UN reports give us 10 years to achieve that.
Brown: I am not sure if we have that amount of time. We reached the point where every day counts.
Plan B 3.0 can be downloaded for free on www.earth-policy.org/Books/PB3/index.htm