You listen to Lester Brown, and you have to wonder what the big fuss is all about at the upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen. I mean, the guy is saying we don’t really have to fight over this, because the technologies available right now could cut greenhouse gas emissions by … drumroll, please… 80 percent by 2020. Yes! (It really puts into perspective President Obama’s pledge today to cut emissions 17 percent over the same time period, eh?)
Now, we’ve written about Brown before, and we may be guilty of featuring him entirely too much, but the man is talking sense. Today he was doing that right here in Rain City on KUOW’s Weekday with Steve Scher, revealing how this seemingly magical transformation can happen. A couple of quick examples from his latest tome*, the unassumingly named Plan B 4.0 — Mobilizing to Save Civilization:
- You want energy efficiency? We got energy efficiency. Replace the world’s incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents and you get a 75 percent reduction in energy use. Replace them with Light Emitting Diode, or LED, lights and combine that with smart technology that, for instance, turns lights out when a room is empty. Then the savings is 90 percent. (Los Angeles is replacing its 130,000 streetlights with LEDs at a savings of $11 million a year. After eight years, the capital cost will be paid off and the programs will be in the black.)**
- Replacing our internal-combustion-engine-propelled vehicles with plug-in hybrid electrics and you improve energy effiiency by a factor of three. If that juice is coming from wind power, it works out to the equivalent of gasoline at 75 cents a gallon.
- Where, one might ask, will we get all that that wind power? We’re glad you asked. This is a key and deceptively simple part of Brown’s blueprint: Replace the 40 percent of electricity we’re getting today from coal with wind power. It would mean producing 1.5 million wind turbines over the next decade — which isn’t free. But consider that we’re producing 65 million cars every year.
Now, what if we stay with business as usual? Well, if you didn’t notice, right now there are something like a hundred icebergs that calved off Antarctica floating toward New Zealand. Meanwhile, as Brown related today, the Greeland ice sheet is melting, too:
When does the melting of the Greenland ice sheet become irreversible? We don’t know the answer to that question because nature … is the timekeeper. We can’t see the clock and that adds to the uncertainty we’re facing.
Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and currently head of the Earth Policy Institute, was trained as an agricultural scientist and returned — perhaps predictably — to his roots on Weekday. Speaking of melting ice, he asks, what happens when Himalayan glaciers are gone?
Well, China is the world’s No. 1 wheat producer. India’s No. 2. The United States is No. 3. But there’s a crucial difference: India and China count on irrigating their wheat with water melting out of glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau. Once that’s gone, who do you think they’ll look to for sustenance? Said Brown:
Americans, we’re tempted to say to say those glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau – they’re China’s problem. They are China’s problem, but they’re also our problem …
For American consumers this could be a nightmare scanario because we’ve got 1.3 billion Chinese with rapidly rising incomes coming in and competing for our food resources.
Or consider rice. China and India also lead the world in rice production. If the Greenland ice sheet melts, as Antarctica seems to be doing, it would raise sea levels an inconceivable 23 feet — redrawing the map of the world, as Brown noted.
That would take centuries. But let’s talk just about the century we’re living in today. Sea levels could rise by up to six feet by 2100, scientists project.
If just half that level of sea rise takes place — a more-than-plausible 3 feet — it would wipe out half of Bangladesh’s low-lying rice fields. It would also inundate much of the Mekong Delta, obliterating half the rice fields in Vietnam, the world’s No. 2 rice exporter. Another 18 to 20 river deltas in Southeast Asia also would be affected by flooding.
All this brings us to pretty much the message we explored yesterday regarding how the globe is growing increasingly interrelated ecologically. As Brown put it:
Ice melting in far North Atlantic is affecting rice harvests in Asia and therefore the whole world rice market.
So, chow down on that turkey tomorrow. Savor especially that rice- or bread-based stuffing.
— Robert McClure
*The book can be downloaded for free in PDF form. In a very webby way, Brown expects that this will increase the number of hardcover editions he sells because increased circulation will get the word out and spur additional interest that will lead to additional sales.
** This is far from an isolated example. I also heard U.S. Rep. and energy-policy pioneer Jay Inslee on a different KUOW program, The Conversation, later in the day. He reminded listeners of the McKinsey Co. study showing that, of all the technologies we would have to adopt to head off catastrophic climate change, 40 percent will actually save us money. (PDF; it’s the second bullet on the fourth page.)