The richest industrialised nations need to act much faster and more effectively to tackle climate change; but failure in the West is not a reason for people in China not to act urgently too.
1. The “safe” level of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is probably much lower than is generally understood.
Unless there is radical change in the way the world produces the energy it needs and how land and other resources are used, mankind is likely to change the global climate in ways that will impose big dangers and high costs on people and nations worldwide.
Other effects of global warming would include more storms of the kind that displaced millions of people and caused $15bn in damage to coastal provinces (according to reports from Xinhua in August 2006). And, as former US Vice President Al Gore points out in his film An Inconvenient Truth, if as now seems possible, warming causes a substantial part of land-based ice in the West Antartic Ice shelf and Greenland to melt, then sea level rise will displace tens of millions of people from the regions of Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere.
To avoid, or at least reduce the risk, of dangerous climate change with impact such as these it is necessary to:
- first, sharply reduce and then stop the increasing rate of emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and;
- second, reduce total global emissions in order to prevent atmospheric concentrations reaching substantially higher levels that trend lines indicate.
To date, much international discussion at the interface of science and politics has taken as a rule of thumb that, as a first step, global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) should be not exceed approximately twice concentrations before the modern industrial era. A typical range used is 500 to 560 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere (see, for example, Socolow et al, Science 2004, and Scientific American, Sept 2006).
Each part per million of CO2 corresponds to about 2.1bn tonnes of atmospheric carbon. The current level – about 380ppm – is 800bn tonnes. 560ppm would mean about 1,200 tonnes. On this reckoning the world adds 400bn tonnes of carbon to the global atmosphere, but no more, and not exceed this target.
It is sometimes argued that total global emissions of up to twice this amount, or 800bn tonnes, would be OK because vegetation, soils and the oceans will soak up half. But this argument is open to challenge. A warmer climate is likely to mean that vegetation and soils become a net source rather than a sink of carbon, leading to a positive feedback (warmer soils means more of the greenhouse gases CO2 and methane, more greenhouse gases means warmer soils and so on). And using the oceans as a sink causes acidification that scientists now think may cause the most rapid and disruptive change to life in the seas since catastrophic events tens of millions of years ago (see Ocean acidification due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, Royal Society August 2005 and The other CO2 problem, New Scientist August 2006).
So it is far from sure that atmospheric concentrations of around 560ppm will be “safe” in the sense that this level will keep the risk of disasterous impacts, including those described for
Advisors to the British Government and others have suggested that 450 or even 400ppm of CO2 may be nearer the mark[i], with a 2 to 20% chance of a temperature increase of 5 degrees Centigrade[ii] if global greenhouse gas concentrations were stabilised at the equivalent of 430ppm CO2.
Virtually every advance in climate science points to bigger impacts and more serious consequences than previously predicted from human emissions of greenhouse gases. That being the case, caution is wise. And the time available to act is much shorter than is often thought. Currently, the combustion of coal, oil and gas, together with other activities, add approximately 7 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere every year. At the present rate, with no acceleration, it would probably take about 12 years for atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to reach 400ppm [iii]. Other stocks of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere by human action including methane and nitrous oxide have the effect of an additional 15% of CO2 so the actual human forcing on the atmosphere when CO2 levels are 400ppm will actually be equivalent to 460ppm.
If, at such a time, it became clear that a higher concentration would cause catastrophic damage, then to avoid those impacts all emissions would have to cease immediately[iv]. Since this is virtually unthinkable, there may well be much less than twelve years for the world to begin a rapid, rational and effective transition to a very low carbon economy.
It is likely that the risk of catastrophic climate change is already as much as one in five. The risk is increasing with every passing month that the world fails to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. It’s like a game of Russian roulette: there is a bullet in one of the chambers of the revolver, and we are in the process of putting in a second bullet. The gun is pointed at the head of everyone in the world.
As mentioned above, global emissions are currently about 7bn tonnes of carbon a year.
But whatever the exact figures on Chinese emissions and those of other countries, there is some simple arithmetic from which we cannot escape – assuming, that is, that we want to start by stabilising global emissions at around today’s levels of 7 billion tonnes.
If present day global emissions were allocated equally to every person in the world,
Energy consumption in
3. This situation presents enormous political challenges, requiring extraordinary creativity and leadership at many levels within
One of the first things that comes up when
The responsibility of the rich industrialised nations to act first was recognised in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. China is a signatory to the Protocol, and benefits from some investment in clean and renewable energy projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (see, for example, World's Biggest Greenhouse Gas Deal Takes Effect in Win-Win Situation for China, Industrialized Nations ). The European Union is also offering some additional assistance with projects such as carbon capture and storage for one coal fired plant by 2020 (see the article by Jon Gibbins on chinadialogue). The
Current actions in the richest countries are hugely, even grotesquely, inadequate given the need for cuts. So far, very few have reduced their emissions at all except as fortuitous byproduct of other measures. For example, in my own country,
The richest countries need to massively ratchet up their commitment to energy efficiency, demand management and clean energy at home and abroad.
Hundreds of millions of people have risen from poverty since
The political challenges to achieving greener growth and distributing its benefits widely and equitably are enormous. Support and advocacy by some at high levels of government, which occurs both in the West and
Government and civil society in
On 30 October the British government published a detailed assessment of the economic impacts of climate change. A team led by former World Bank chief economist Nick Stern concluded that the need for action was urgent, that acting now will be much cheaper than not acting, and that it is the only way to protect future economic growth in all countries. Crucially, “strong deliberate policies by goverments are essential to motivate change”. The British government has said it will introduce a bill in the next parliamentary session to address the challenge.
Many civil society groups in
On 4 November some tens of thousands of delegates from some of these groups, which comprise environment and conservation organisations, churches, unions and womens’ and others organisations, and have a combined membership of many millions, took part in one of a series of demonstrations in over 50 countries, including some of the poorest and most vulnerable such as Bangladesh, calling for faster action to reduce emissions by the rich countries. In
The path to a politics of climate change may be very different in
At the recent summit in .
[ii] Meinhausen 2006, cited in Stern Review, page 9
[iii] The calculation here is that at a rate of 7bn tonnes a year it takes 12 years to produce 84bn tonnes. 84bn tonnes translates to an additional 40ppm in the atmosphere, but half of this is soaked up by vegetation, soils and the oceans, meaning the net addition to the atmosphere over 12 years is approx 20ppm.
[iv] Some scientists suggest that a massive programmes to draw down carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere into stable sinks in soil and geological strata plus geoengineering to inject sulphates into the stratosphere could help should such a stage of crisis be reached. But such approaches are likely to be face both severe challenges of technical practicability and political acceptability.
[vii] 5.7 – 0.57 = 5.13
[viii] e.g. IIASA 1, 2 & 3 as cited by Japan’s National Institute of Environmental Sciences as cited in Stern supporting paper in ref 2 above