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.

Share
Related Topics

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

 

 

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Election catch-up: Blairites for and against a Miliband victory

John Rentoul
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in debt to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before