Copenhagen: Still Going, Still Failing

First things first. Today, I met someone from Diane von Furstenberg’s eponymous company. He talked eloquently about Diane’s Manhattan project–a 3,250 sq m office complex in the Manhattan meatpacking district. It is heated in winter and cooled in summer geothermally by 13C water pumped from underground. According to his fancy presentation, its roof is covered with plants and grasses, not to mention two ‘heliostat’–not that I knew the meaning of the word–mirrors which track the sun and direct daylight into the building. One more place to visit the next time I am in New York. Also present at the talk: Olafur Grimsson, Icelandic President, under whom Iceland changed from a coal-powered nation to geothermal bastion.

And I watched the morning session on TV—I have given up going all the way to the Bella Center. Gordon Brown gave a nice speech; well, it was nice compared to that of Greece (super-boring) and of Kuwait, which spent most of allocated ten minutes thanking and congratulating. Gordon Brown pledged $ 10 billion funding per year from ALL developed countries to until 2012—less than 40 minutes later, Malaysia countered it by asking for $200 billion annually until 2012, and $800 billion afterwards. This sort of greed is what I meant by “damaging punitive measures”.

Yesterday, I said we should do only what we can to fend off the global climate change. No, I didn’t ask only to “take marginal steps and lackadaisical efforts,” which was how a friend interpreted the post. Forget the complex Socolow-Pacala wedges. Here is a breakdown of what I think we can do:

Everyone hates taxes. So instead of carbon taxes for governments to fund green initiatives, why don’t we give tax breaks for individual citizens to pursue their own green initiatives? In US, Canada and Europe, generous tax credits are meted out for hybrid vehicles. Credits for insulations (reaching up to monumental 5,000 pounds in UK) are equally prevalent. What’s next? Solar panels, personal wind-farms, geothermal units, possibilities are endless.

Adam Smith is right–a free market remains most effective, even for the climate change. In cap-and-trade, the governments put a cap on how much carbon an industry is allowed to emit; efficient companies that emit less earn ‘credits’, which they can sell to inefficient companies that emit more. It persuades inefficient companies to reform, which leads to gradual reduction of overall emissions. It works.

In Copenhagen, attacks against coal is seen as an attack towards developing nations. This is not true–Brazil does just fine without a predominant coal industry. Coal plants can run at 45% efficiency, but in China they run at 30%. Instead of making them more efficient, they just builds more plants. Instead of signing away billions of dollars to the projects in the developing countries that will never materialize, the West should show a little teeth (perhaps trade embargo on the products made in dirty industries).

This summer, Ralph Nader–that perennial fly in Democrats’ ointment–released a novel, Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us Now, in which rich private individuals like Warren Buffet use their wealth to solve America’s problems from healthcare to climate change. Fat chance! It nonetheless caused me to pause and reflect about our society–no matter how hard we try, our efforts as private citizens are minuscule compared to those of elites.

We need to recruit the rich, not by coercing them into paying more taxes but by appealing to their altruism and perhaps desire to improve their public images. In recent years, most stringent steps in the fight for the environment were taken not by private citizens or governments but by corporations which cared for their image. HP’s decision to switch to lighter packaging (in its printer cartridge department only) reduced its carbon footprint by an amount equivalent to removing 3500 cars from the road. WalMart cut 5% in packaging–605,000 tons of CO2 annually–and used its leverage with its 60,000 suppliers for greener shipping methods. Sometimes their efforts are profit-driven (like GE’s Ecomigration scheme) sometimes, we can reach a better world through such enlightened self interests.

Lastly, invest. By rebuilding our financial institutions and entrepreneurial investments, we will again stand a little taller and we will be able to give a richer, more technologically equipped world to our children. Invest in Our Future. Don’t Squander That Money in Useless Efforts Now.

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