February 16, 2009

Urgent need for action on climate change

Filed under: Environment — Tags: , , — 4fooey @ 7:35 pm

The need to do something about climate change is now becoming extremely urgent and is without doubt man’s no. 1 challenge. The  “STERN REVIEW: The Economics of Climate Change” was published in 2006 and it seems very little has been done, apart from that the UK government has passed a law to commit the UK to a cut of greenhouse emissions by 80% by 2050. This is fine in itself, but I wonder how on earth this is going to be achieved — I don’t see the practical steps towards this target being taken. To see how urgent this is, you just need to read the Stern Review again — the following are extracts from the review:

The scientific evidence is now overwhelming: climate change presents very serious global risks, and it demands an urgent global response.

Climate change is global in its causes and consequences, and international collective action will be critical in driving an effective, efficient and equitable response on the scale required.

The benefits of strong, early action on climate change outweigh the costs. What we do in the next 10 or 20 years can have a profound effect on the climate in the second half of this century and in the next.

No-one can predict the consequences of climate change with complete certainty; but we now know enough to understand the risks. Mitigation – taking strong action to reduce emissions – must be viewed as an investment, a cost incurred now and in the coming few decades to avoid the risks of very severe consequences in the future.

The stocks of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides and a number of gases that arise from industrial processes) are rising, as a result of human activity. The current level or stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is equivalent to around 430 parts per million (ppm) CO2, compared with only 280ppm before the Industrial Revolution.

Even if the annual flow of emissions did not increase beyond today’s rate, the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would reach double pre-industrial levels by 2050 – that is 550ppm CO2e – and would continue growing thereafter.

But the annual flow of emissions is accelerating, as fast-growing economies invest in high carbon infrastructure and as demand for energy and transport increases around the world. The level of 550ppm CO2e could be reached as early as 2035. At this level there is at least a 77% chance – and perhaps up to a 99% chance, depending on the climate model used – of a global average temperature rise exceeding 2°C.

Under a BAU scenario [levels of emissions remain the same as today, therefore assumes no accelaration], the stock of greenhouse gases could more than treble by the end of the century, giving at least a 50% risk of exceeding 5°C global average temperature change during the following decades. This would take humans into unknown territory.

The following are possible physical outcomes, taken from the Stern Review, of temperature rises of between 1 to 2°C and 3 to 5°C.

1 to 2°C rise

Food – Falling crop yields in many developing regions, rising number of people at risk from hunger, with severe impacts in marginal Saharel region.
Water – Small mountain glaciers disappear worldwide, significant changes in water availability (e.g. more than a billion people suffer water shortages in the 2080s).
Ecosystems – Coral reefs extensively and irreversibly damaged, large fraction of ecosystems unable to maintain current form.
Weather – Rising intensity of storms, forest fires, droughts, flooding and heat waves.
Risk of rapid climate change and major irreversible impacts – Risk of weakening of natural carbon absorption and possible increasing natural methane releases and weakening of the Atlantic THC, Onset of irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

3 to 5°C rise

Food – Entire regions experience major declines in crop yields (e.g. up to one third in Africa).
Water – Sea level rise threatens major world cities, including London, Shanghai, New
York, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
Ecosystems – Possible onset of collapse of part or all of Amazonian rainforest, Many species face extinction (20 – 50% in one study).
Risk of rapid climate change and major irreversible impacts – Increasing risk of abrupt, large-scale shifts in the climate system (e.g. collapse of the Atlantic THC and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet)

The most alarming outcome listed above is that for a rise of 5°C, for which Stern says there is now a 50% risk of happening, up to 50% of the earth’s species are at risk of extinction — this prospect is truly appalling and would be catastrophic for life on earth.

In a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Prof James McCarthy said the planet will be in “huge trouble” unless Barack Obama makes strides in tackling climate change. Prof McCarthy said that the US has just four years to save the planet. And at the same meeting, Professor Chris Field, said future temperatures “will be beyond anything” predicted. He said warming is likely to cause more environmental damage than forecast: “We are basically looking now at a future climate that is beyond anything that we’ve considered seriously in climate policy”. He said the increases in carbon dioxide have been caused, principally, by the burning of coal for electric power in India and China. “Without effective action, climate change is going to be larger and more difficult to deal with than we thought,” he said.

The measures now needed to deal with climate change are going to extensive and will effect every area of life — and the changes required need to start in the next months and years. We simply don’t have a moment to lose.


January 1, 2009

A new year, a time for urgent action

Filed under: Environment, Politics/News — Tags: , — 4fooey @ 12:13 am

On the Today programme (31 Dec, on Radio 4 in the UK) Jarvis Cocker was the guest editor. He interviewed Nicholas (Lord) Stern about climate change and how lessons can be learned from the action that has been taken in the response to the financial crisis. He also pointed out the contrast between President Bush and the president to be Obama regarding their response to climate change. The interview with Stern is reported here: Stern hope over US climate deal.

Stern pointed out that the financial crisis shows us that the longer we leave a problem or ignore a risk then the worse a crisis can become and the harder it is to resolve it. The same can be said on climate change — if we leave it too long to act then it will be more difficult to solve it, and more costly in financial terms and its effect on the planet. He also suggested that the need to solve the climate change issue represents a great opportunity for technology, science and business, on a level with the industrial revolution.

Stern suggested that the financial crisis has been large in magnitude, but suggested that the issue of climate change is far bigger, in terms of the effort and commitment required. He was however very optimistic that is could be solved, but stressed that it would require so-far unseen collaboration, across governments and international agencies. Given that in crisis situations, wars and such like, countries tend to act in their own self interest, this will be a huge challenge for the world, but one we must attempt and meet. The scale of the challenge cannot be underestimated, but it’s looking increasingly like we have absolutely no option but to take up the challenge.

Jarvis Cocker ended his stint as editor of the Today programme with an assessment of his interview with Stern. Cocker felt we are at a turning point and that we have interesting times ahead. Acknowledging that the financial crisis will effect a lot of people, he was very optimistic about our capacity to solve the climate change issue and that people would be able to adapt. Maybe if you resolve to do one thing this year it should be to ‘do your bit’ for climate change, and then hope the US, China and other governments can reach a historic and binding agreement later in 2009 to tackle climate change: the time for urgent action is now.

December 4, 2008

Another ‘bank’ in trouble

Filed under: Environment, Politics/News, Uncategorized — 4fooey @ 11:06 am

There is one bank which is not mentioned at all in the context of the current financial crisis, yet it has everything to do with the economy and how we conduct our lives. The bank is ‘The Earth Bank’ which contains all the natural resources that we use and rely on, and all the species in existence – this bank is the earth itself, and while it functions to a large extent on its own, we as custodians or ‘bank managers’ of it have an enormous influence over its future. In the context of climate change, and the extent to which we humans add significantly to it, the Earth Bank is very much in trouble and in need of a dramatic and urgent rescue package, the mother of all ‘bail outs’.

Much has been said in the past few years about climate change, and there have been numerous committees set up and reports published (in 2006 the UK government published the Stern Review, and in 2007 there was a major report from the UN’s IPCC). It seems at last governments are starting to take steps to curb climate change in the form of greater recycling, more energy conservation, alternative fuels (especially for cars & other transport), non-carbon based or renewable energy generation, carbon capture, and so on — but there is long, long way to go. Another report was published this week by the UK Committee on Climate Change chaired by Adair Turner. The report suggests that Britain cuts greenhouse gas emissions by a fifth of current levels by 2020, which it describes as a ‘tough’ target and greater than has been attempted before. The report also recommends that the government does not use off-setting to achieve this target – apparently, the government has been planning to offset half of our emissions by buying carbon credits, which means someone else will have to implement the cuts in emissions. The full report by the HMCCC is here: Building a low-carbon economy – the UK’s contribution to tackling climate change.

Significant quotes from the Executive summary are useful:

“Climate change resulting from CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions poses a huge threat to human welfare [Ed: and the Earth, many species & the environment]. To contain that threat, the world needs to cut emissions by about 50% by 2050, and to start cutting emissions now. A global agreement to take action is vital. But a global agreement will not be possible unless the countries of the rich, developed world provide leadership.”

“A fair global deal will require the UK to cut emissions by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The good news is that reductions of that size are possible without sacrificing the benefits of economic growth and rising prosperity. Technologies are available or with appropriate support could be developed which deliver low-carbon energy; opportunities to increase the efficiency with which we use energy are huge; lifestyle changes which will not undermine welfare can produce significant cuts in energy consumption. And many of the actions required to tackle climate change we should want to do anyway because these have economic, wider environmental and security of supply benefits.”

“The challenge is not the technical feasibility of a low-carbon economy but making it happen. Ensuring action will require strong leadership from government and a concerted response from individuals and businesses… the path is attainable at manageable cost, and following it is essential if the UK is to play its fair part in avoiding the far higher costs of harmful climate change.”

It’s going to take a huge shift of consciousness to get the majority of people onto a more sustainable lifestyle. This kind of major shift tends only to happen after severe shocks in the world system, like wars, economic depressions, massive natural disasters — one such shock could be the current financial crisis. We need a “soft/peaceful” revolution to happen and soon. The ‘green movement’ has been advocating such a revolution for decades, and although we’ve made small steps (green thinking is now mainstream and no longer considered ‘loony’), we still have a huge mountain to climb.

My question to governments in general and to the green movement in particular is, how is this change or revolution going to come about? What will it take to get us onto a more sustainable path? We need lots of small steps by individuals at a local level, and very large & fundamental changes at the international level — the latter is really needed now to have the most dramatic and lasting effect. The costs of rescuing the earth are said to be manageable (a few percent of GDP of each major country), but the costs if we don’t, in both economic terms and for the future of the planet and humankind, is unimaginable.

October 16, 2008

The big adjustment

Filed under: Economy, Environment, Politics/News — Tags: , — 4fooey @ 10:10 am

Is this the end of life as we know it? Well, I doubt it, but with the ongoing financial crisis, and now the real threat of global recession, it seems that life for many millions will get tough (of course we’re talking about people in the western world, since there are many millions who have it pretty tough already). Many people are predicting a quite severe recession, that will probably last for a number of years, although most pundits don’t really know how bad it’s going to be. Chances are, most of us will get through it, one way or another, but I’m sure we will all have to make changes in our lives, to a greater or lesser extent.

Looking at the situation more broadly, however, this financial crisis or near meltdown, may be a manifestation of wider problems in our economies and our western society as a whole. Our whole way of life and levels of consumption have reached a level that relies on too many assumptions: relatively cheap and plentiful resources (fossil fuels & raw materials), relatively cheap and plentiful supply of food, as well as labour, and easy money/credit. Now though these assumptions have shown themselves to be completely unsustainable, as some resources become more scarce or expensive. Confidence in the whole system has broken down.

Consider the scale of the help given to the financial industry — it runs into the trillions of dollars, in the US and Europe, and we are told there are many ‘toxic assets’ that are hidden away that will probably need to be written off. We are told this help is necessry because the banking world is so central to the running of our economies. Imagine if we could spend a fraction of this on solving some of the other problems in the world, such as climate change, finding alternative energies, helping the developing world to fight disease, providing education, etc.

In the west we live in a kind of virtual dream world of relative luxury, that is supported by the media and advertising. This illusion has become shattered with the current financial crisis — consumer confidence has been hit by the crisis. A similar thing happened when the planes smashed into the Twin Towers in New York back in 2001 — immediately following the event people were traumatised and for a short while ‘normal life’ was suspended, while people stopped shopping and several websites were closed down. A blast of reality had shocked people into realising what really mattered to them — somehow they were turned off the merry-go-round of modern consumerist life. Soon after the attacks, President Bush told everyone to go shopping to get everything back to normal!

We really can’t go on living as we do, expecting our economies to carry on growing — we should aim for a good standard of living for the majority of people in the world. This financial crisis and impending recession gives us an opportunity to re-assess how we conduct our economies and lives as a whole. I’m sure the main thrust of how governments and individuals react to this will be “how do we get back to normal”, but I feel a more radical adjustment is needed — the changes needed to reach a fairer and more sustainable system are so huge it almost seems impossible to achieve. However, with the right leadership, with all the clever brains working on it, and with hope and optimism it could be possible.

Update 23/10/08; just read a good article by one “clever brain”, namely Jeffrey Sachs, writing in the Guardian: Amid the rubble of global finance, a blueprint for Bretton Woods II. He suggests that the leaders of the world should go much further than ‘just’ fixing the world economy by trying to roll climate change, poverty alleviation, and so on, into a grand ‘new deal’ — great idea, and I hope they really can pull it off, if indeed they try to do this. A similar line is taking by another “wise man” Jonathan Porritt in his article: Zero hour for a new capitalism. He sees economic and environmental issues as totally interelated, which of course they are, on a global level.

October 3, 2008

Urgent need for action

Filed under: Development, Environment, Politics/News — Tags: , — 4fooey @ 10:02 am

Imagine the situation…. millions of people are threatened, their livelihoods at risk, their homes at risk, increased hardship, instability, wars even, etc. No, I’m not talking about the fallout from the current financial crisis, but the probable effects of climate change.

The evidence that CO2 and other emissions are warming the planet are incontravertible — in the past few months/years numerous research organisations and NGOs have shown this (including the Stearn report, various UN reports etc), and although there are still a few doubters both political and scientific, it is now time to take URGENT action.

Fast forward to now, and everyone is gripped by the financial crisis and the issue of climate change has taken a back seat. I would suggest the two things are linked, in both causes and effects. Our modern lifestyles and our rising level of prosperity have created climate change — the rise in living standards has been fuelled by the past few years of “living beyond our means”, both in terms of the “easy money/credit” from banks and increasing levels of consumption of goods, energy and resources. We are now racing towards a future of disastrous effects due to our profligate lifestyles and culture.

If we are to face a period of scaling down our lifestyles, of cutting back, due to economic hardship, then this might be a silver lining on some very dark clouds — if everyone borrows less, buys less, consumes less, then we damage the planet less. But don’t get me wrong the financial crisis is a disaster and I would rather it was not happening now. We need strong economies to tackle problems like climate change and other important issues (like those on the UN millennium development goals) — and I’m hopeful that America and the wider world will recover from this crisis.

Short term we need to get ourselves out of the dire financial mess, but longer term we need to rebuild the financial system, and the global economy as a whole, in a more sustainable way, to create a system that truly helps the majority of people towards a better life. It’s somewhat disappointing that relatively bold and swift action is being taken to solve the financial crisis, while the problem of climate change is potentially more damaging and yet nothing so radical is being done.

Update 14/11/08: Although the threat to humanity and planet from Climate change and its effects are far greater than the effects of the financial crisis or of global terrorism, large numbers of people seem to ignore the threat. This phenomenon is examined here: Are Human Beings Hard-Wired to Ignore the Threat of Catastrophic Climate Change?

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