Sustainability and patience

Dr Raymond Ashton examines carbon targets.

As we are all aware, the major industrial nations have agreed to new carbon targets in the years to come. This is reinforced by the tax incentives to businesses to attain these targets in the form of research and development tax breaks and major initiatives by global oil producers such as BP and Shell. While such targets are laudable, they may be somewhat over-ambitious.

We first heard about global warming in the later 1980s from scientists concerned about the ozone layer, but little was actually done about it until the 21st century, particularly from 2015 onwards.
The reason for this is the wide variety of uses to which oil and its carbon alternative coal can be put.
So important is the importance of oil that it played a vital role in not only the Second World War via the United States and Russia but afterwards in the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 and the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1973. Its importance is even felt today in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

The core issue is whether the current initiatives will likely prove successful, given the geopolitical role of oil and the current absence of potent green alternatives. Having said this, significant progress has been made in relation to cars and to some extent in air travel, and which via technology will continue to develop and mature – but what about a competitor which will displace oil as an energy source? Strides have been made in relation to the use of nuclear energy but none of the alternatives to date have made a significant effect on the nations of the world such as China showing little commitment towards a green alternative.

In this writer’s view it will take a major technological development equivalent to the significant developments in oil and coal extraction before a significant improvement is made to the environment. This will take time and whilst everyone has been warned about climate consequences of carbon use the pressing need appears absent in practice. Until there is a climate catastrophe of some magnitude the necessity in immediate terms will not present itself. Climate change by governments is dogged by world politics and the roles of China, the USA and Russia who are too powerful to take effective action against in the need to reduce their carbon imprint.

It follows that while green finance and the sustainability of alternative energy sources are potentially very important, this writer believes that progress will be slow. This slow growth should govern expectations and the effects of Government policy may well be thwarted, an unpredictable force that will undermine efforts to reduce global warming given the conflicts of the last two centuries. Efforts to reduce carbon emissions are highly desirable but our expectations must be driven by the technological developments which have been more modest.