December 2008 was dominated by shoes and footprints. At an anti-government protest in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, Sirry Hjaltested said that her grocery bills had gone up by half in recent months. She blamed the country’s bankers for the ruined economy. “If I met a banker,” she told the Economist, “I’d kick his ass so hard, [that] my shoes would be stuck inside.”
From now on George W. Bush’s Iraqi footprint may be measured by another man’s shoes. As a ‘goodbye present’ in the name of the Iraqi people, TV-journalist Muntadar al- Zaidi hurled his footwear at the outgoing US President who, it must be said, dodged the attack perfectly.
Still, as the pair of size-tens was sent flying during a live press conference, its impact is likely to be felt for years to come. The shoes were an instant hit with US comedians and talk show hosts, while the Internet’s merciless all-seeing eye, Youtube, claimed over 5 million viewers within days. EU leaders and President-elect Barack Obama may have giggled in private upon seeing the incident, yet in public were occupied with quite a different kind of footprint.
The EU adopted a plan to fight global warming by reducing its 2020 CO2 emission levels by 20 percent compared to its 1990 carbon footprint. As so often with these grand scenarios for the earth’s well-being, satisfied politicians are quick to pat themselves and each other on the back, while environmentalists call the result a “sell-out.”
“These are the most ambitious plans in the world” and “we mean business,” the triumphant European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told the press, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy termed the deal “historic.” Organizations such as Greenpeace and the WWF had a slightly different view. According to them, it was “a black day” that saw leaders choose “private profits over the will of European citizens and the future of their children,” as European industries get free emissions permits when facing a five percent cost increase.
On the other side of the Atlantic, US Presidential elect Barack Obama presented the political team that in the coming years is to formulate a sound energy and environmental policy. Obama set the stakes high. Acknowledging that past US governments, both Democrat and Republican, have failed to live up to expectations, “this time must be different,” he proclaimed. “This [fighting global warming] will be a leading priority of my presidency and a defining test of our time. We cannot accept complacency nor any more broken promises.”
His most promising appointment is no doubt Dr. Steven Chu as energy secretary. A 1997 Nobel Prize Winner, Chu is Professor of Physics at the University of California, where he has pushed academics and industry scientists to work on biofuel and solar energy technologies. Unlike a major part of the US Republicans, Chu believes that a decrease in burning fossil fuels is essential to combat global warming.
Although few people will disagree that Chu seems the man for the job, it remains to be seen if he and Obama can make a major impact. It is no exaggeration to state that the environment is but the latest victim of the global financial crisis and economic downturn. With profits falling and jobs vanishing, who needs an extra burden and who is willing to lose votes over a far-away Arctic meltdown?
And yet, the Americans and others have got some work ahead when it comes to reducing their carbon footprint. While the world average carbon output amounts to about four tons, the Americans emit 20 tons per person. As a political solution is not on the horizon any time soon, some people may opt to at least reduce their own footprint. That, however, may be easier said than done.
Last June, MIT professor of Mechanical Engineering, Timothy Gutowski, asked his students to compare the energy consumption of people in different socio-economic classes. A total of 18 different lifestyles were chosen ranging from vegetarian students to professional golfers. Interestingly, the researchers found that even Americans with the lowest energy usage, including a homeless person, a five-year-old child and a Buddhist monk, still had a carbon footprint twice the size of the average global citizen. This is because the services provided for every American, including infrastructure and public services, guarantee a minimum that no American can drop below.
However, the research found that as income rises so do emissions. Bill Gates, who was taken as a case study, had an estimated carbon footprint of about 10,000 times the American average, as he flies around the globe in his private jet. The study concluded that voluntary reductions by most people are unlikely to make much of an impact, yet considerably more can be done by the wealthy. Gutowski suggested that the best way to lower footprints is to tax carbon use.
Now there’s a shoe for the American president.
Peter Speetjens is a Beirut-based journalist