As the Copenhagen climate change talks get into full flow, Ed Owen speaks to the group leading the UK’s delegation for an overview of the latest climate change thinking.
Britain has led the world in discovering climate change and bringing the latest research on it to the widest possible
audience. Researchers at the British Antarctic Survey first discovered the hole in the ozone layer and academics
such as James Lovelock, who developed the Gaia hypothesis, have pushed the environmental agenda for decades.
But action by British governments has been slow. This changed on the publication of Nicholas Stern’s review of the economics of climate change in 2006. This study had a simple economic message − act now because it is cheaper than waiting for the climate to change and then adapting to it.
Going into the Copenhagen round of talks, the government has brought the Stern team back together.
Bob Ward CV
2008 Policy and Communications drector at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.
2006 Risk Management Solutions − director of public policy.
1998 Royal Society − Various tasks including leading communications team.
First degree in Geology and unfinished PhD in palaeopiezometry.
He is a member of the executive committees of the Association of British Science Writers and World Conference of Science Journalists 2009, and is a member of the board of the UK’s Science Media Centre
“At the moment, we are focusing on two main issues − emission reduction and mitigation. The main concern is to limit or control emissions of greenhouse gases and limit the temperature rise to 2º above pre-industrial levels. We are already at 1.8º above,” explains Stern’s deputy at the Grantham Research Institute Bob Ward, which compiled the 2006 report.
“Realistically we have a 50/50 chance to keep it below 2º,” he says.
Ward says the built environment is the key sector to be affected by climate change, and the thinking has to start now.
“The biggest challenge for the built environment is how do you adapt the building given that the physical environment is changing?
“If you are building in London with a 50-year design lifespan, you will have to cope with London’s climate today, but Lisbon’s climate in the future. Structures will need the flexibility to cope.
“Unfortunately, you cannot point too accurately to temperature increases. If you did so you could be prone to over or under adaption,” he says.
“In the UK, the thing we will have to do will be dealing with extremely hot days and decide what this means, not just for the buildings but for the environment inside. If everyone just decided to install air conditioning, it would be a bad way to adapt.
“Also, a warmer atmosphere would hold more water and have seemingly paradoxical situation where there is less rainfall annually but bigger downpours. There would be risks of both drought and flood. Sea level rises will create issues on the coastline from storm surges.
“No matter how well we do with mitigation, we have to take into account the impact of extreme weather events.”
But uncertainly over the real effects of climate change on the ground is often interpreted as uncertainty over the notion of climate change. This is simply wrong, says Ward. “How climate will change we can’t quantify. But climate change is simple physics − greenhouse gasses trap heat,” he says.
“Climate change is simple physics − greenhouse gases trap heat, making us 17% to 18% warmer compared to planetary neighbours”
Bob Ward, Grantham Research Institute
There is therefore a relation between the concentration of CO2 (or equivalent gases − such as methane which also acts as a greenhouse gas, expressed in parts per million (ppm)) and the latent air temperature.
“Pre-industrially we were at 280ppm. Currently we are at 435ppm. We aim to prevent concentrations going above 500ppm. If we increase by 2.5ppm per year, then in six years we will be over 450ppm, which is where we ultimately want the concentrations to be below.”
“We could be at 750ppm by the end of the century, which could add 50 to the world’s mean temperature, which we have not seen for, say, 30M years,” he adds.
Combating this means cutting emissions dramatically. “We expect to reach peak emissions within five years and then reduce global emissions down to 44bn.t in 2020, 30bn.t in 2030 and 16bn.t in 2050,” he explains. “This means a 60% cut in emissions, or 50% compared to 1990 levels.”
- European Union To cut emissions by at least 20% on 1990 levels, but by 30% with global agreement
- USA To cut emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020, 42% by 2030 and 83% by 2050
- China To cut C0² per unit of GDP by 40%-45% below 2005 by 2020
- Japan To reduce emissions by 25% by 2020
- India To generate 20% of electricity from solar by 2020
While the developed world is generally on board and already moving to reduce emissions, it is still a heavy polluter.
“Developing countries are growing, and bringing their populations out of poverty. They need economic growth, just as in the industrialised countries.
“Developed countries are responsible for the rises in CO² levels now. But in 2025, 8bn of the 9bn world’s population will be in the developing world. They will also be the most exposed to the effects of climate change,” he says.
Limiting CO² is what the pre-Copenhagen talks have focused on, and the Stern group has been pushing hard to make deals in the last weeks and months. When the Copenhagen conference begins, the main aim will be to write a framework for climate change mitigation beyond 2012.
Emissions have already fallen due to the global recession. “In 2010, globally there will be 47bn.t of CO² equivalent emitted. Without the recession, it would be 52bn.”
Despite this recent dip in emissions, underlying emissions are increasing more quickly than the Stern team had anticipated in 2006. “The climate’s reaction is greater than previously thought. Impacts have been significant − the gradual melting of the Arctic ice sheet for example.”
The Stern report concluded that spending 1% of GDP to mitigate against climate change would yield the same results as spending 5% of GDP to adapt once the climate begins to change. But this has already changed.
“Now, getting the target limit is more like 2% of GDP, but this means it is still cheaper to act now than not to,” says Ward. Especially as the 5% of GDP needed to adapt has also escalated.
Stern could not quantify the cost of making parts of the world uninhabitable due to migration and flooding, but both of these effects raise the prospect of more conflict in the future. “Spending 5% of GDP is now a low limit forimpacts,” he says.
Ward says stronger action needs to be taken to force up the price of carbon in the EuropeanTrading System (ETS). “We have seen the largest market failure in the City, and the price to emit CO² does not reflect the final cost. There are too many free permits and things like electricity do not reflect the real cost.
“We need to make the transition so costs for heating, electricity, etcetera should reflect that, which will make fossil fuels necessarily more expensive,” he says.
He acknowledges that some sectors − particularly those related to the construction sector − may be hit hard should the cost of carbon rise too far. “Some companies in certain sectors, such as aluminium, steel and cement are large emitters, will need to be helped and this needs to be managed. But this is only a small part of the economy and it would be wrong for smaller sectors to dominate wider discussions,” he says.
“Developed countries are responsible for the rises in C0² levels now. But is 2025 8bn of the 9bn world’s population will be in the developing world”
To decarbonise our infrastructure, more does need to be done. Ward says carbon capture technology may work,
but there is no plan B if the technology fails to make enough impact. He says efficiency is a better place to focus on.
“The private sector gets this and is developing new types of low carbon technology, but there needs to be a step-change. The Committee on Climate Change’s annual report indicates that policy is directed in the right way, so businesses have a suitable environment to work in.
“But the third runway at Heathrow shows there is no joined-up thinking in government. The same with the car
scrappage scheme,” he says.
Would companies facing huge penalties for emitting carbon not simply outsource their work? “The Stern review could not find any relationship because even with a high carbon price, it is relatively small cost compared to other costs such as labour, so that is generally not credible.”