Climate change and living sustainably

Peter M. Allen
Cranfield University, ENG

In our complex world of interacting people and elements, it is difficult to know what needs to be done and what should be reduced or avoided. However, following the recent IPCC Report on climate change it is clear, if it wasn’t before, that there is an urgent need for action on carbon emissions and waste production. Some work I have been involved with recently is about attempting to decide what to do about it. What actions and policies need to be adopted in different countries, if they are to get closer to ‘sustainability’? A model has been developed to look at the reduction in material and energy ‘footprints’ that different innovations might bring to current environmental impacts. This can offer support for prioritizing decisions and policies that can have the most positive effect on the impending disaster.

This work therefore clearly engages with one important aspect of how we might survive in a system as complex as the world. There are cultural, economic, social, technological and natural factors at work in the world we inhabit, and so it is not at all obvious how we should act in order to avoid a predicted disaster. Also, it is rather novel in human history to manage to convince a society that it must change its ways—if it is to avoid disaster. In most prehistoric and historical instances, warnings are ignored. Civilizations tend to flower for a time, and then to fail—often for reasons of soil exhaustion, failing water supplies, climate change and over-population. Today, we ourselves are causing the climate change that may overwhelm us, and generally over exploiting the Earth’s resources. However, today, with our capacity to explore possible futures using computer models of various kinds, we are getting fair warning that we need to change. We need to balance short term profits and gains against long term disaster.

Normally, throughout history we have tended to ignore warnings and allowed selfish and deluded ‘great leaders’—Kings, Emperors, Tyrants and Presidents of various kinds, to pursue their goals of ‘victory’, with inevitable consequences of death and destruction. Today, however, we can see that continuing on our current path of ‘development’ will lead to disaster and that we must find a different way forward other than allowing mad (ignorant) ‘leaders’ to pursue their own dreams of profit and empire. And it is very urgent! The IPCC report things that real actions must be taken immediately if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.

In order to decide what actions need to be taken urgently, the work I have been involved with asked how we might reduce our current over exploitation of the Earth to a ‘sustainable’ level. To explore this we developed an agent-based model of households, which uses for data the actual national statistics of a country and examines the probable effects of possible innovations. Currently, a country such as the UK has a material footprint of around four times what might be sustainable (around 34,000kg/person/year). As households are the ultimate consumers that command the production of goods and services, we considered the impact of possible household innovations on the material flows (material footprint/individual) of a given society. We divided the relevant behavior of Households into four connected domains—Living, Food, Mobility and Energy. We then considered possible innovations in these domains, (insulation, house sizes, choice of heating/cooling technology, food supplies, type of food, cooking, travel by different modes, and improved energy efficiency and home solar and wind) taking into account their interdependencies, and found that Spain could possibly get near to sustainability, but for UK, Germany and Finland it was not possible to get anywhere near. And clearly, the USA, for example, is worse!

The only way to achieve sustainability will be to add to all these household innovations with the possibility of grid electricity that is generated from renewables (and some nuclear). We also need to travel less and to adopt electric vehicles and eventually electric aircraft. Clearly, the amount of ‘green’ electricity required will be huge. But with this, the four countries studied could achieve sustainability, which concerns the ‘material footprint’ per person of around 8000kg (around sustainable), and vastly reduced CO2 emissions.

This kind of exploration is needs to be extended to all countries so that their own situation and conditions can be included correctly, and this will allow appropriate plans to be made concerning their urgent and pressing problems. Clearly, the world is one of the most important ‘complex systems’ that we know of, and so we need to take urgent action if we are to save it and maintain its life-sustaining powers.