5 November 2006

Not Stern enough

By Andrew Boswell

The Stern report has got people talking about climate change like never before. In the 700 pages of Sir Nicholas report there is a simple message – it will ultimately cost far more to spend nothing on mitigating climate change than it will to start spending to try and prevent the worst of it.

Although Stern has got people thinking the right direction, the assumptions in his report still bind us to the globalised economic system that has brought us to the brink of catastrophe, and the ensuing political talk this week still largely lacks the teeth to really make the difference.

Simply the science and climate changes observed on the ground are moving much faster than the politicians. Government thinking is based on the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) data. This is about to be updated and the signs are that this year's IPCC reports will be much bleaker as to temperature rises and their impact.

Stern too inhabits the IPCC 2001 world when he suggests that we should stabilise emissions at 550ppm equivalents of CO2. This is expected to give a 3°C rise in temperatures, whilst most scientists think that we must stabilise the climate at 2°C above pre-industrial levels to avoid runaway climate change. Some scientists like pre-eminent NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen are saying 1.7°C.

We are already at about 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels and scientists know that there is a delay between gases being emitted into the atmosphere and resulting changes to the climate of around 30 years. So our current climate is a response to the gases already emitted by 1976, but since then greenhouse gases equivalent to another 0.6°C rise have been emitted, leaving only another 0.3°C equivalent of ghgs before hitting Hansen's figure.

However, three recent pieces of evidence that indicate runaway effects may already be occurring. We may not even have that 0.3°C buffer.

First, Arctic ice cap summer melt has been 40 times faster in 2005 and 2006 – this induces a 'positive' feedback as water absorbs heat that the ice would reflect so causing further warming. Second, methane emissions from Siberian tundra melt are found to be increasing rapidly – this region of the planet is warming faster and threatens to release huge amounts of methane - a potent greenhouse gas. Last week further data on a slow down of the Gulf Stream was published.

This week politicians who have persistently ignored the environment spluttered "urgent, urgent, urgent" but still would not set realistic targets to prevent runaway climate change. Despite the Stern warning, the Government was still talking about its target of a 60% reduction by 2050 – a target originally set in 1990.

The latest science as discussed in George Monbiot's new book Heat suggests that we actually need 90% cuts by 2030 in the UK. Urgent action should initiate these cuts immediately and 'front-load' them so the greatest cuts are made first. The positive feedback effects now being detected demand nothing less, and front-loading will create less total emissions over the period until 2030 leaving less a less damaging legacy beyond 2050. I have calculated such front-loading needs to be 7-9% annual reductions now leading to 3-4% reductions by the mid 2020s.

David Miliband must be challenged on his promise this week to legislate cuts by 30% by 2020, only 2% a year, in a Climate Change bill as being wholly inadequate. The biggest wake up call for the public and politicians alike is yet to come – that is that it is economic growth itself that underlies much of climate change. Stern lost the chance for real radical change as he built his report around the God of our times, continual economic growth, which is part of the problem not part of the solution.

Economic growth has been in lockstep with carbon emissions since 1960. It is absurd to build policy on a belief that growth can continue and decarbonisation will magically happen. It is common sense that growing takes a lot of energy. So with the economy, it is the growth part the 3% extra (or more in China) that produces most of the emissions. To make the 7-9% annual cuts needed now, we must restructure to zero-growth (see also The steady state economy).

Aubrey Meyer’s 'Contraction and Convergence' (C&C) model offers the best underlying principle for future international treaties as it provides equal rights of all people and nations to emit safe levels of carbon. The Nairobi talks next fortnight are the opportunity to negotiate a new post-Stern international agreement based on C&C and zero growth. It should supersede the wholly inadequate Kyoto without delay. People like you and me are marching around the world today including in London to demand this radical path to climate justice.