This time last year I wrote a column expressing a pessimistic view of what was likely to be achieved at the forthcoming climate conference in Cancun. Little did indeed emerge from that event, though at least the main parties continued to talk to each other and adhere to the idea that we need a new agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Now with Kyoto the verge of expiring the show has moved on to Durban in South Africa and ahead of that I went to a meeting organised by the Stop Climate Chaos coalition at the Greenhouse in Norwich.
There an exhibition on the theme of the African Climate Connection was opened by Norwich South MP Simon Wright, who then took questions from a number of organisations of the SCC coalition. The exhibition and the questions highlight the wide range of environmental problems the world faces today; from biofuels destroying forests to green growth in the UK; from biodiversity loss to children impoverished through climate change.
One piece of good news on the climate front appeared this week however, which is something of a rarity nowadays. In a detailed analysis of historic climate variability since the last glacial maximum around 20,000 years ago, an article published in Science indicated that the sensitivity of the climate to increases in CO2 may be lower than thought. Whereas it had previously been calculated that a doubling of CO2 would raise temperatures by around 3oC, this study suggests the outcome is more likely to be 2.3oC. This hardly lets us off the hook, since we know how significant the impact of a 2oC increase is likely to be, but it perhaps does mean we have a few more years than we thought to change our ways.
We need every bit of help we can get at the moment because after two years of small falls, last year CO2 emissions grew by the largest amount ever recorded to their highest ever level (Greenhouse gases rise by record amount). With China and India now the biggest and third biggest emitters there is no sense in just re-hashing the Kyoto treaty because it doesn’t cover these developing nations, only those already developed. The problem is the stand-off between the developed world, where emissions are high but relatively stable and these developing nations where emissions are rising very rapidly yet remain much lower than in Europe or the USA on a per capita basis.
So are we likely to see an agreement at Durban? Well Simon Wright’s view was that it was unlikely, though he did hope that something would be agreed in the next 2-3 years. We have to hope that the financial crisis doesn’t deflect political attention from the environment to their domestic economies, because while the science gets more secure year by year, the will and indeed the ability to act amongst the wider political community doesn’t seem to be making similar progress.
We still have enormous stores of fossil fuels left to be exploited. Not just coal, conventional oil and gas, but the newer sources of oil from tar sands and gas released by fracturing the rocks in which it is currently locked. Beyond that there are large quantities of methane locked up in the deep oceans which could potentially be used as technology advances. These are more than enough to drive our planet into a period of dramatic warming if we use them all and at present it seems we are hell bent on doing so.
I don’t believe the fossil fuel industry, or the politicians who regulate it will ever willingly stop exploiting these reserves, so I am left with the conclusion that our only hope is to make the renewable energy technologies so efficient and cost effective that they make fossil fuels obsolete. It could happen, particularly in the field of solar energy where the fuel is free and in permanently sustainable supply. What it needs is for governments to back a massive increase in research into these technologies rather than half-heartedly leaving it to the market and hoping something comes up. Now that really would show a commitment to a sustainable future.