Friday, October 2, 2009

Taking a Haircut for Our Grandchildren

Taking a Haircut for Our Grandchildren

It may be controversial, but it’s the best we’ve got. The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) provides a way to numerically rate each of the globe’s countries by their overall greenness, or lack thereof. Not surprisingly, Switzerland is first, the U.S. is 39th, while China is down at No. 105 and India comes in at 120th.

The EPI rates everything from air, water, health of its citizens, agriculture, impact on climate change, ecosystem vitality, among others. It was produced by a group of top environmental scientists with grants from major foundations.

EPI’s findings quantify a situation we all know exists: how can the less populated, wealthy, developed countries demand that the other less developed countries follow suit in drastically reducing carbon emissions to save the planet? Especially those like China and India who are giving birth to a middle class numbering in the hundreds of millions. Many countries that did poorly on the EPI are producing consumer goods for U.S. shelves that are exported since we don’t want to build them here and it is dramatically cheaper. The classic NIMBY (not in my backyard) scenario, indeed.

Experts and pundits from venture capitalist Vinod Khosla to President Obama himself have delved into this issue with the same conclusion – all countries must participate in setting environmental policy and they must do it now. In my view, one thing is clear: rich or poor, from the most advanced to the most primal, all citizens of the world and their governments must make lifestyle changes to clean up the planet. This is a global problem, not a time to point fingers at “who’s done what & when”. Otherwise, our grandchildren if not our children won’t be left with a whole lot to work with. They will be wishing they could turn back to a time when there were options.

The time is now for all countries to accept that their economies must take a bit of a haircut in the name of environmental responsibility. How much value will the super stringent vehicle emissions regulations in California have when on the other side of our world, millions of new drivers will be putting cars and trucks on the road that have antiquated pollution control systems? We need to bear in mind that our relatively small population of around 330 million is absolutely dwarfed by India and China’s billions. Soon enough, these countries carbon emissions will make the Western world appear miniscule. Without comparable cleanup standards and subsidies in the Chinas, Indonesias, and Indias, what’s the point for the rest of us to drive hybrids and acquire solar panels?

This clearly needs to be a worldwide effort, with everybody putting aside their own immediate priorities for the greater good. This is not strictly magnanimous, nor is it the naive ranting of a tree hugger. If we don’t all clean it up, and soon, it will be a moot point – by the year 2050 or even sooner in my opinion.

Two key confabs – the G20 conference in Pittsburgh, which is happening as we speak, and the revisiting of the Kyoto accord (let’s hope the U.S. signs this time) which is slated for Copenhagen in December – will hopefully be the first major steps in a global initiative to this end. While economic concerns need to be balanced with environmental policy, we may not have the luxury of arguing about it for 10 or 15 years for it will be too late.

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