Burn, Baby, (Cough) Burn

Beijing pollution

The Beijing skyline, as seen three years ago, is unlikely to look this good again. Photo by Kevin Dooley/Flickr

The good news is that the worldwide recession is easing. The bad news is that the pollution of the world is resuming. (Although the word “pollution” seems retro in a time dominated by trendy references to greenhouse gases and carbon footprints, it might be useful to remind ourselves from time to time that climate change is not the only consequence of unrestrained pollution. It’s killing people in many other ways as well.)

In any case, a brief respite — not from pollution, of course, but from the inexorable, constant increase in pollution — imposed by the global financial crisis is now coming to an end. And there was no respite at all in China or India.

According to a study published this week as part of an annual report by the Global Carbon Project, emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels in 2009, the year the current recession was deepest and widest, declined a scant 1.3 per cent from the record levels reached in 2008. While emissions from burning coal and oil in the western industrialized nations dropped substantially (in the United Kingdom, for example, by 8.6 per cent) China’s increased by eight per cent and India’s by more than six per cent.

The report predicts that 2010 will be anothe record-setting year for pollution, just as were the nine consecutive years prior to 2009.

The news is all the more disheartening when considered along with the fact that the aforementioned industrialized nations are about to reconvene their desultory talks about perhaps, one day, ┬ástarting to begin to study doing something about climate change. Last year in Copenhagen, in the face of rising seas, shrinking glaciers, monster storms and spreading drought, all they managed to cough up was a promise to invest $30 billion to help the world’s poorest countries adapt to climate change. Later this month when they reconvene in Cancun, they will have to admit that they have not even come close to keeping their promise — which itself was their way of avoiding doing anything about climate change themselves. Their performance has been detailed in a study by the International Institute for Environment and Development.

There is ample reason to be concerned about these trends, even if for some reason you are unable to admit that climate change is under way — say, for example, you have just been elected to the US Congress, or wish to be some day. (An exaggeration? Ask Rep. Bob Inglis R-SC who says he lost his seat in Congress to a tea-partier after admitting he thought atmospheric warming was real. During the campaign he was described as having gone to “Satan’s side.”)

Believe in warming or not, there is no escaping the fact that burning the fossil fuels means not only more pollution — not only by greenhouse gases but by such things as mercury, acid, and coal ash — but less remaining fuel. Yet in the face of multiple rising threats to their future existence, the developed and developing countries of the world stand mute and helpless, determined, apparently, to die with more cash in hand than their dying neighbors.

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