"No one is better informed than Lester Brown of the multi-faceted crisis facing our planet. And no one has spelt out so clearly how our civilisation could be saved from falling 'over the edge' while there is—hopefully—still just time." —John Rowley, founder/editor www.peopleandplanet.net on World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse
Preface to Part III
Many earlier civilizations faced environmentally induced crises and many were undone by them. Typically, they faced one or two destructive environmental trends, most often deforestation and soil erosion. In contrast, our early twenty-first century global civilization faces numerous environmentally damaging trends, all of our own making and many of them reinforcing each other. In addition to deforestation and soil erosion, they include aquifer depletion, crop-withering heat waves, collapsing fisheries, melting mountain glaciers, and rising sea level, to cite a few. 1
While the preceding seven chapters described these trends and their consequences, notably environmental refugees and failing states, the next five chapters describe what it will take to reverse these trends.
Because the world today is ecologically and economically interdependent, today’s environmental crises are uniquely global in scope. In this new world, the term national security has little meaning because we will either all make it together or go down together.
Simply put, what the Earth Policy Institute calls Plan B is what we have to do to save civilization. It is a monumental effort to be undertaken at wartime speed. There is no historical precedent simply because the entire world has never before been so threatened.
As noted in Chapter 1, Plan B has four components: stabilizing climate, restoring the earth’s natural support systems, stabilizing population, and eradicating poverty. The climate stabilization plan calls for an 80 percent reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2020. In establishing this goal, we did not ask what might be politically popular but rather what was needed if we want to have any hope of saving the Greenland ice sheet and at least the larger glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau. 2
Reducing carbon emissions has three main elements. The first is raising the efficiency of the world energy economy while restructuring the transport sector. This is designed to offset all projected growth in energy use between now and 2020. The second is cutting emissions in the energy sector, principally by replacing fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) with renewable energy (wind, solar, and geothermal). The third element in cutting carbon emissions is to end deforestation while engaging in a massive campaign to plant trees and stabilize soils.
The 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions is designed to bring the rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, currently at 387 parts per million (ppm), to an end by 2020 at 400 ppm. Once we stop the rise, then we can begin to reduce CO2 concentrations to the 350 ppm that leading climate scientists recommend. 3
The other three Plan B components go hand in hand. The restoration of the earth’s natural systems—including reforestation, soil conservation, fishery restoration, and aquifer stabilization—will help us eradicate poverty. Likewise, eradicating poverty helps stabilize population, and accelerating the shift to smaller families helps people break out of poverty. Ultimately, feeding a global population of 8 billion will depend on our success in meeting all four Plan B goals.
The good news is that we have the resources needed to achieve this. The restructuring of the energy economy, including both the shift to more energy-efficient technologies and the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable sources, can be achieved largely by lowering the tax on incomes and raising the tax on carbon. Plan B calls for phasing in a worldwide carbon tax of $200 per ton by 2020, while offsetting it at each step of the way with a reduction in income taxes.
The budget for restoring the earth’s natural systems, stabilizing population, and eradicating poverty will require under $200 billion per year in additional expenditures. This can be achieved simply by updating the concept of national security to recognize the new threats to our security and reallocating the security budget accordingly.
The final chapter in this book is about mobilization. It talks about the various models of social change, how to achieve a rapid transformation of society, and the urgency of implementing Plan B.
1. Sandra Postel, Pillar of Sand (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), pp. 13–21; Guy Gugliotta, “The Maya: Glory and Ruin,” National Geographic, August 2007; Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Penguin Group, 2005); Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
2. For a detailed explanation of the Plan B climate stabilization goal, see Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), available on-line at www.earth-policy.org/books/pb4, as well as the book’s supporting datasets at www.earth-policy.org/books/pb4/pb4_data.
3. Current carbon dioxide concentration from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth System Research Laboratory, “Mauna Loa CO2 Annual Mean Data,” at ftp://ftp.cmdl.noaa.gov/ccg/co2/trends/co2_annmean_mlo.txt, updated 7 October 2010; carbon dioxide projections modeled with decay curve cited in J. Hansen et al., “Dangerous Human-Made Interference with Climate: A GISS ModelE Study,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, vol. 7 (2007), pp. 2,287–312, with historical emissions from fossil fuels from G. Marland, T. A. Boden, and R. J. Andres, “Global, Regional, and National CO2 Emissions,” and from land use change from R. A. Houghton, “Carbon Flux to the Atmosphere from Land-Use Changes,” both in Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change (Oak Ridge, TN: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2008 and 2010), at cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/trends.htm; scientist recommendations in Johan Rockström et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature, vol. 461 (24 September 2009), pp. 472–75; Marlowe Hood, “Top UN Climate Scientist Backs Ambitious CO2 Cuts,” Agence France-Presse, 25 August 2009; James Hansen et al., “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” Open Atmospheric Science Journal, vol. 2 (15 October 2008), pp. 217–31.
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