Copenhagen, Climate Change and the Conditions of Compromise

With the media spotlight on Copenhagen this past week it is evident that climate change and environmental sustainability have arrived as major players on the stage of international issues.

Scanning through news headlines you can get a sense for the real passion these issues are evoking on a global scale. If the detainment of 1000 protesters gathered to advocate for fair climate policy is an accurate indicator of global sentiments, citizens are demanding action in what they perceive to be an increasingly urgent crisis.

While I am happy to see climate change receiving the much needed attention it deserves, as the author of a site focused on both sustainability and technology I am disappointed that there is not an equal focus on technological development that could relieve the pressures associated with emissions cuts.

I am reminded of a cliché often used in health that we are promoting a system of ‘sick care’ and not ‘health care,’ which is to say that our practices are reactive (e.g. replacing a clogged artery) and not proactive (e.g. promoting a healthy diet, regular exercise, and check-ups). A reactive system addresses the symptoms of the problem – in this case climate change – but does not focus on the fundamental behaviour driving that change: consumption of resources at a higher rate than they can be replaced, and offsetting a previously established equilibrium in which carbon dioxide could be absorbed at the same rate it was being produced.

Realistically, until there is a cheaper alternative to coal-fired energy (whether through technological advancements that can reduce the price of alternative energy, or through
a reassessment of our economical models that would dramatically increase the price of coal), it will be very difficult to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This is a primary cause of the tension that can be seen at the Copenhagen Summit – development, in the most encompassing sense of the word (particularly for unindustrialized economies) is essentially linked to the ability to emit carbon dioxide. It is a system of compromises. Countries must choose the extent to which they will develop and provide opportunity for their citizens and the amount they are willing to exacerbate environmental issues.

By focusing discussions specifically on emission caps, we ignore the very real possibility that there is another path leading to mutual gain and sustainability. Research and development into renewable energies, smarter agricultural practices, and efficient technology could reveal new solutions to the development vs. emissions problem. In the most ideal situation technological developments could allow industrialization to occur in tandem with emissions cuts. At the very least, technology can assist in the adoption of sustainable values by reducing the inconvenience associated with change, and this is why I consider it to be such a critical factor in achieving the goals of the Copenhagen Summit.

For now, the very existence of a global summit focused on reducing emissions and reevaluating current practices is a good start. It recognizes that there is a problem, puts a new cost on consumption, and with any luck will spur the technological development required to become sustainable by making it economical to do so. It is my hope that policy makers, and the public at large, will soon come to see sustainability as an interdependent issue lying at the cross roads of economics, technology, and social values – and that achieving sustainability must be a collaboration, not a compromise.