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We need a universal price on every ton of carbon emitted: Jonathon Porritt

Nov 20, 2013

Sir Jonathon Porritt is a prominent environmentalist and writer who is the Founder Director of Forum for the Future and a former Green Party co-chair. In his new book ‘The World We Made’, a future historian from 2050 recounts what steps were taken by today’s world to avert environmental disaster. Sir Porritt along with Martin Wright, Director for Forum for the Future, elaborates on his vision in an interview to OneWorld South Asia.

Jonathan Porritt

OWSA: What is the world which you envisage in 2050 and what steps should be taken to get there?

Sir Jonathothann Porritt: It’s a good world in 2050, a much better world than people will think it will be at the moment, and this is because we would have addressed most of the questions that currently are unanswered. We would have gotten on top of the challenge of accelerating climate change, policies on biodiversity would have changed, a lot more would have been done to eliminate pollution, overexploitation of fishing and so on. So we would have learnt from the error of our ways between now and 2050, which is why it will be a good world rather than a bad world.

OWSA: Which are the most difficult sustainability challenges to address in the world today and why?

Porritt: The hardest challenge is to get people to stop using fossil fuels by a very long way. All of our societies, both in the rich and poor worlds, are completely dependent on coal, oil and gas. If we want a reasonable life for nine billion people by 2050 we have to phase out the use of these fossil fuels. It is the single most important thing we have to do.

OWSA: There is a lot of disagreement in the international system as to how responsibility should be distributed. India has a principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) which look at historical emissions as well. What is your take on how responsibilities should be distributed between the developed and developing world on emission reductions?

Porritt: There is no doubt that the West has a historical obligation to pay for the damage that it has done over the last 50-60 years. That’s beyond dispute. The trouble is that countries such as India and others are using that as a reason not to get going on their own decarbonisation story. The book doesn’t spend very much time talking about historical legacies or liability issues. It simply says ‘everybody is effected everywhere by every ton of CO2  that goes into the atmosphere’. So we have to work together. What that means is that we need a universal price on every ton of carbon which applies evenly to India as well as America. It’s just that America needs to start now for paying for its CO2 and India needs to start pretty soon. It’s a question of accepting the need for extremely urgent action. All this debate has been going on since 1997 and I’m frankly sick of it. The debate is utterly, utterly ridiculous and totally self-indulgent.

OWSA: As a member of the Green Party, you have had experience in politically mobilising the masses for environmental issues. What works and what doesn’t when it comes to getting mass support on these issues?

Porritt: What doesn’t work is telling people that we’re heading to hell and giving a permanently apocalyptic vision of what the future is like. The reason i’ve written this book is precisely to change the mood about the way people think of sustainability and to infuse much more positivity and hope into the prospect of a genuinely better world for all and not just the 1.5 billion rich people.

The green movement and the Green Party needs to get out of this place that says that we’re all finished and it’s just downhill from here and on.

OWSA: What are the immediate steps that can be taken on this way forward?

Porritt: We need an agreement before the end of 2015, before the next climate treaty, that says carbon has to have a price put on it anywhere in the world. That price needs to start quickly in the developed world and needs to come in developing and emerging countries, in my opinion, at the latest by 2025. It also needs to go high quickly. $5-10 a ton will not make a difference but $50-100 a ton will.

OWSA: What are the initiatives Forum for the Future has undertaken to contribute towards a more sustainable future?

Martin Wright: We work with government, NGOs and particularly business to try and encourage them to plan for a sustainable future. We provide training, communications and help them in working together because a lot of the really big problems can’t be cracked by any one agency. They can only be cracked by people collaborating right across the system.

For example, an initiative we are involved with is the sustainable shipping initiative. Shipping is a dirty industry with a relatively clean reputation. To make it sustainable, you can’t just work with a shipbuilder but also need to work with harbour authorities, those who hire out ships, provide insurance, etc. So in the sustainable shipping initiative we brought them all together and got them to plan together doing futures exercises about what a sustainable shipping industry would look like and how we need to get there. This is an example of a network of people coming together to tackle challenges.

We did a publication called ‘India: Innovation Nation’. It celebrates and analyses all the successful innovation that is happening in India.

The main thing we want to do in India is to work with progressive companies and fresh ideas that are coming up, especially from the younger generation.

OWSA: What is your main target audience for this book and what is the message you would like them to take back?

Porritt: There are three main groups. The first audience is young people. It’s clear to me that unless young people begin to demand much more of their politicians today the change process is going to be too slow. The second is businesspeople.

The third group I am interested in are technologists, entrepreneurs, innovators; basically people who love technology

The single most important message I want to send out from this book is that a good, just, sustainable future is still available for all of us by 2050 if we start working on it by today.

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