It doesn't really matter that earlier this month Spain managed to generate 53% of its electricity from wind power, a record for that country. This, in essence, is the message from Dr Veerabhadra Ramanathan. But Dr Ramanathan is no oil company-funded climate change denier. Quite the reverse.
The Spaniards broke their record on the windy night of November 8, when more than 10 thousand megawatts were generated by wind turbines. This happened at a time of low electricity demand, but the excess supply was not wasted. Some was exported to countries like France, Portugal and Morocco. And some was stored in a remarkably low-tech way: they used the electricity to pump water into reservoirs, which could be used later on to drive hydro-electric turbines.
Spain has invested heavily in wind power. In just one of its seventeen provinces, Castilla y León, there are 161 wind farms and the industry employs 5,000 people. In another, Galicia, 64% of energy consumption comes from renewables at present, with the regional government targeting a rise to 95% by 2015. Impressive.
So why does this not matter, Dr Ramanathan?
Well, of course it does. But the CO2 already in the atmosphere has probably already condemned us to a 2.5°C (4.5°F) rise in global temperatures this century even if we stopped emitting this year – which is much more than we can expect from the politicians meeting in Copenhagen. The harsh truth is that half the CO2 emitted today will still be up there a hundred years from now.
Yet even more than this, there is another source of climate change that is being largely ignored by policymakers. It is the 'atmospheric brown cloud' (or ABC) discovered by Ramanathan in 2002.
Now head of the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California, Berkeley, Ramanathan found there to be a complex blanket of ozone, methane, halocarbons and 'black carbon' sitting low over India, China, Brazil and some cities – notably Los Angeles, where it is visible as smog. He named it the ABC. It traps greenhouse gases beneath it, close to the earth's surface
Black carbon is the main ingredient. This can come from diesel vehicle emissions, but the larger source is wood being burned for cooking. Unfortunately this is the only way to cook in many rural areas of the Third World. Satellites have traced the soot to the Himalayas, even finding black carbon on Mount Everest. Once over the mountains it is contributing to the melting of glaciers which feed rivers sustaining hundreds of millions of people in China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. All the wind farms in Spain won't do a lot to help them.
Luckily there is at least a partial solution. The good thing about black carbon is that, unlike CO2, it remains in the atmosphere for just a couple of weeks. So any reduction in its emissions can have rapid effects. Improved cooking techniques using affordable and appropriate technology can reduce emissions by more than half when compared to cooking on an open fire – and reduce the demand for firewood by an equal amount. Already charities are promoting these techniques in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Sudan, but much more needs to be done.
So perhaps when thinking about solar panels or wind turbines for our suburban roofs – which some write off as expensive green status symbols – we should think as well about helping poor families on the other side of the world we share. What we do alone matters little; what the whole of Spain does matters little more. But when we start thinking holistically – of the atmosphere as a whole, of the world population as a whole, of our combined actions as a whole – it all begins to matter much, much more.