Change, but at what price?

After 2008 started with panic over food prices, the world seemed to be waking up to global warming. Then the recession hit. John Vidal reviews a volatile year.

No one could have predicted quite how dramatically 2008 would have ended. Even as president George W Bush was slashing his way through United States environmental protection laws, president-elect Barack Obama appointed Nobel prize-winning physicist Steve Chu as the next US energy secretary. Chu is seen as the repudiation of everything that Bush stood for, and predicts that temperatures will rise by a staggering 6.1 Celsius by the end of the century if nothing is done. Although it does not mean the oil age is over, if you want a sign that 2008 was a tipping point, it could not have been clearer.

But go back to the start of the year. Empty shelves in Caracas, riots in India and Mexico, and rice shortages in Dhaka, Manila and Kathmandu. Traders in at least 12 sub-Saharan African countries were hoarding food, and soaring maize and rice prices were leading to political instability. Governments were being forced, one after the other, to step in to protect supplies and control the cost of bread and dairy products.

The problem, said the analysts, was a mix of climate change and extreme weather leading to poor harvests in major grain-growing countries, such as Australia. But the blame also was laid on the many millions of acres of maize, wheat and other crops planted in the United States and elsewhere in 2007 to provide biofuels for cars rather than food for people. Catastrophe loomed, said the United Nations.

It happened slowly and out of sight of the cameras, in the burgeoning cities that are becoming the new frontline of deep poverty. Proof came this month, when the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported that 2008 had seen the biggest increase in malnourished people in decades. According to its preliminary data, more than 960 million people — one in every six people in the world — now go to bed hungry, and 40 million suffered malnourishment in 2008 because of higher food prices.

This year will go down as the year of interlinked food shortages, climate change and the recession. But it also was the year when it may have dawned on governments that hell-for-leather, western fossil-fuel-based, car-centred growth only ends in social and ecological disaster.

There was soaring air pollution, from a record 622 million passenger vehicles, and near record loss of Amazon and other tropical forests. But climate change dominated the international agenda.

A flood of scientific papers showed Arctic ice melting faster than ever and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet close to becoming irreversible. Methane, one of the most damaging climate-change gases, was found bubbling up from the tundra and the Arctic Ocean. There were record temperatures and near-record hurricane seasons, and scientists and environment groups who believed only a year or two ago that it would be possible to just about hold global temperature to a 2º Celsius rise accepted privately that this could now be impossible.

But it also became clear in 2008 that climate change was disproportionately impacting on the poor. Subsistence farmers around the world reported a pattern of increasingly unpredictable seasons and social problems linked directly to water and higher temperatures.

In north-east Brazil, which has always been drought-prone but which has seen temperatures rise at least 1º Celsius in only 30 years, more than 1.5 million people now cannot access enough water, and must leave home to find work in the biofuel fields in the south of the country each year. In Bangladesh, Uganda, Niger, Malawi, Nepal and elsewhere, people also said that temperatures were becoming hotter and rains less and less predictable.

Another trend became apparent. Rich countries, worried about fast rising global populations and dwindling food and fuel supplies, began buying up farmland in poor countries.

In the United Kingdom, environment secretary Hilary Benn said that Britain’s food supplies, which come increasingly from abroad, were overdependent on oil — a situation, he said, that “must change”.

But the most extreme admission of oncoming climate and food problems came from Mohamed Nasheed, the new president of the low-lying Maldives, who said he was looking for a new homeland, possibly in India, for the time when his country was swamped by rising seas.

The big, still unanswered question of 2008 was how far the financial, food and ecological crises were linked. The best evidence may come from a 1972 study. A group of economists and ecologists were commissioned to predict the consequences of a rapidly growing world population, rapid industrialisation in developing countries and growing pollution. Their book, Limits to Growth, predicted widespread and growing hunger, oil shortages, and ecological and economic collapse by the mid-21st century if countries did not rethink economic growth.

Actually, for much of this year, it looked as if the rich world had begun to address sustainable development. Europe committed itself to generating 20% of all its energy from renewables by 2020, and banned incandescent light bulbs; Britain became the first country in the world to set itself a legal target of 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050; and more than 70 countries now have national goals for accelerating the use of renewable energy. Businesses, UN agencies, British politicians and many individuals all genuinely tried to reduce emissions.

Led by Britain, pressure mounted for a global trading scheme, and prime minister Gordon Brown’s forest adviser, financier Johan Eliasch, recommended that a multibillion-pound fund be set up to pay the owners of the world’s rainforests not to cut them down. The irony was that a separate study by the Woodland Trust charity found that ancient woodland in Britain was being felled at a rate even faster than the Amazon rainforest.

Clean energy took off in 2008, and climate-change mitigation became an industry, backed by the world's biggest companies. According to HSBC, companies in the climate mitigation business now generate US$300 billion in revenues each year. In November, the International Energy Agency predicted that renewable energy would overtake natural gas to become the second-largest source of power generation worldwide within two years, and that global wind and solar generating capacity would increase by more than 30%.

The energy revolution that had been predicted to start after 2015 appeared to be well under way. Architect Norman Foster designed Masdar, a car-free, solar-powered ecotopia for 40,000 people in the Arabian desert. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s ruler, was so impressed he ordered two, at US$15 billion each.

In mid-summer, with oil at over US$130 a barrel and government-level talk of oil supplies "peaking", there was concern that the price could top US$200 a barrel. As people rushed to buy smaller cars, fit better boilers and get into wind and solar power, it seemed possible that the constant rise of emissions might genuinely be reversed. Yet by December, the global economy was crashing its gears, and oil had dropped to under US$40 a barrel.

Whether the world weans itself off oil and fossil fuels probably will determine global sustainability over the next 20 years. Low oil prices traditionally push energy efficiency off the policy agenda. Economic recessions have punctured green economic bubbles in the past. When times are tight, the wisdom goes, no one invests in new or risky technologies, and countries stick to cheap and dirty energy.

That was happening in part by the end of 2008. Plummeting demand for recycled materials, especially in China, has drastically lowered prices for old paper, plastic and metals. US and European cities were forced to scale back recycling programmes. Meanwhile, South Africa decided in December that it could not afford “clean” nuclear power stations and plans to increase massively its cheaper but dirtier coal-burning stations. Britain, too, went ahead with plans for more opencast mines.

A more optimistic group of people say the recession may not only check unsustainable growth but also provide breathing space for the world to move to more sensible policies. Governments, said leading greens, have a historic opportunity to "climate proof" their economies in response to economic troubles. Obama and Brown both have said that millions of jobs could be created in green building, wind power, solar thermal and other green technologies.

They were backed by energy gurus such as Amory Lovins, co-director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and environmental analyst Lester R Brown, who argued that the needs to deal with both climate change and energy security have set renewable energy on a path that cannot be reversed.

The consensus is that 2008 was volatile and dangerously unpredictable. But if governments don’t change, it may come to be seen as a calm before the storm.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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