We can’t afford not to save the melting Arctic

The disappearance of the Arctic has profound implications. Only the fossil-fuel industry holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet.

To see the ice disappear this quickly is unprecedented. The 2012 melt has comprehensively broken all previous records. We are now heading into uncharted territory because the Arctic helps to cool the climate and regulate our weather patterns.

In 1979, the Arctic in September had more than 7,000,000sq km of ice. This September, when the melting season ends in a few days’ time, it is likely to have less than 3,500,000sq km.

Its disappearance, maybe within the decade, has the most profound implications. It would indicate the definitive end of the Holocene – the 10,000-year stable climatic period that allowed civilised societies to develop. As the sea ice goes, we are entering what scientists are calling the Anthropocene – an era in which the climate is made by man, where we can radically change what the Earth looks like from space. And it’s not just the Arctic that is breaking records. The US sweltered in the hottest July on record. We cannot go on breaking these fossil-fuelled records if we want to keep within the relatively safe level of a 2C rise in global average temperatures.

Until we understood the nature of climate change, you couldn’t beat fossil fuels as a source of energy. Coal oil and gas are all-pervasive because they’ve been incredibly useful for giving us heat, light and transport.

Now we know better. It has one very major downside, apart from being finite, as the source of carbon dioxide driving climate change and the acidification of our oceans. It’s not too different from the story of CFCs. They were used in everything from aerosol cans to refrigeration. Some saw them as magic chemicals, until we found out that they were destroying the ozone layer. Then we had to act fast and replace them because we can’t exist without the ozone layer. Without it, we would get skin cancer from the sun’s harmful rays.

Climate change and the acidification of our oceans will have a much more dramatic impact, but the solution is not so easy. We have to change our source of energy, not just phase out one easily replaceable chemical. To be clear, the fossil-fuel industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet.

Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by the middle of the century and still have some reasonable hope of staying below the 2C threshold. In late May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published its latest figures. Carbon dioxide emissions last year rose to 31.6 gigatons, up 3.2 per cent from the year before.

Most studies predict that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly 3 per cent a year if we carry on as usual. At that rate, we’ll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in about 16 years. As Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist, warned: “The new data provides further evidence that the door to a 2C trajectory is about to close.” The trend, he added, is “perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about 6C”. That’s almost 11F, which would create a planet straight out of a science-fiction novel.

But like the smoker who hasn’t yet given up cigarettes, let alone cut down, we’re in the same position we’ve been in for a quarter-century: scientific warning followed by political inaction. No one denies that fossil fuel addiction is hard politically to give up. But there is a cold mathematical truth: 2,795 is clearly higher than 565. Five times higher. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, 2,795 gigatons is the amount of carbon already in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies and the countries, such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar, that act like fossil-fuel companies.

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. The last thing we need to do right now is hunt for more oil in the Arctic. Given this hard maths, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry spending countless billions going to the extremities of the Earth for an energy source that is threatening life on our planet.

If there is no limit to how much fossil fuel we burn and, as a consequence, we head towards 6C of warming, then billions of people and many industries will be affected. The environment, wildlife, agriculture, infrastructure, property and insurance sectors will all suffer.

Much of the profit from the fossil-fuel industry stems from a single historical accident. Alone among businesses, the fossil-fuel industry is allowed to dump its main waste, carbon dioxide, for free. Nobody else gets that break – if you are a householder, you have to pay council tax for refuse collectors to take away your rubbish.

Until the late 1980s, almost no one knew the danger that carbon dioxide was causing. But now that we understand that carbon is heating the planet, its pollution has become the most important issue facing us. We can no longer afford to keep pouring tens of thousands of tons of waste every day into the air. We have to move away from the dirty fuels and develop safe, new energy technologies that rely on natural fuels you don’t have to burn, such as wind, wave, tidal, geothermal and solar energy.

It can be done. In the first half of 2012, 25 per cent of Germany’s power came from renewable sources. The UK’s green economy contributes £122bn, or 8 per cent, to our GDP, according to the CBI. The rapidly growing £3.3trn global market in low-carbon goods could be a strategic opportunity.

Saving the Arctic might save us and save the economy.

John Sauven is director of Greenpeace