Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Cuts and Culprits

In the run up to Copenhagen the Guardian has published this comparison of different nations’ contributions to climate change from which I’ve learnt that the per capita carbon emissions in the UK are 9.3 tonnes compared with 6.4 tonnes in France. The main reason for this difference is that France gets 80% of its energy from nuclear power, though possibly local food habits and the popularity of holidays inside the ‘Hexagon’ help marginally. The figure is heartening to me because there’s no significant difference in quality of life between the two countries. Neither lack for luxury. Francophiles and Anglophiles could argue this both ways but really the differences are trivial (the French do have very excellent bread and fresh vegetables, but personally I find this hard to weigh against the watery tea and lack of good cheddar). The statistics show that it would be possible to cut UK emissions by a third without any pain or loss at all by shifting energy generation away from fossil fuels.*

As well as useful information these national figures offer dubious entertainment – it’s very tempting to search out the bad guys. Most obviously, the USA’s 19.9 tonnes per capita annual emissions are quite shocking. But even the USA could point to worse culprits: they’re drinking oil in Bahrain (41 tonnes), Qatar (70.6 tonnes) and UAE (38.5 tonnes), and who can say what’s going on in the Virgin Islands (150 tonnes). Some of the discrepancies are caused by population size so it’s useful – and chilling – to remember that British has the 8th highest total carbon emissions of all countries (France is 16th).

The figures aren’t helpful if they're a temptation to evade individual responsibility by pointing to other nations or thinking in relative rather than absolute terms about emissions. We know that the earth can sustain no more than 1 tonne of annual carbon emissions from each of us.** But national statistics are helpful in giving some indication of whether a nation’s actions match their words during the rhetoric storm we can expect from Copenhagen.***

* Many environmentalists would argue that the French merely displace the problem since nuclear power creates its own dangerous pollution. There’s a very useful assessment of the UK energy situation in Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air.

** George Marshall’s Carbon Detox is still my favourite guide to reaching this target.

*** If you’re in the UK, don’t forget the march in London on Saturday December 5th, from 12 noon to call for strong action against climate change at the UN meeting. (I have to be in the UK that week so will be there. Please do get in touch if you’d like to join me; I will have my British mobile.)