28 November 2010

Climate Change Time Again

By Mark Crutchley

A year ago our hopes were high that the Copenhagen climate change conference which was being attended by many of the world leaders, would produce a meaningful accord that would set us on route to tackling the problem of our excessive carbon dioxide emissions. Sadly it didn’t turn out that way and whether you believe the official line that the political accord reached was a major step forward, or the more common NGO view that it was a missed opportunity, you would be hard pressed to find evidence that much has changed in the past year.

The most positive interpretation I have heard of the outcome at Copenhagen was from David King at the UEA literary festival a couple of weeks ago. He effectively accepted that little had been achieved, but pointed out that this stopped us from pursuing the fantasy (my words) that some international accord was going to come along and save the day. Instead it forced individual governments to push ahead with their own plans to set emission targets as we in the UK have.

Now we are here again, though with rather less fanfare, as the world prepares to gather in Cancun to try to find a way forward. The UN is calling for concrete results to come out of the summit but with the Republican Party having taken control of the House of Representatives in the intervening period the chances of the Americans being able to deliver on any deal with binding commitments has diminished significantly. Without America, China is unlikely to make any firm commitments and without these two it matters little what the rest of the world may do.

So is that it? Game over. Do we stop trying and just accept that we are going to have to live with the problems that a 2, 3 or even 4oC hotter world are going to bring us? Or should we carry on trying to limit our emissions; stopping new coal fired power stations being built; trying to turn the tide against the expansion of agrofuels which are wreaking havoc in the forests of South East Asia; and lobbying against the push of oil exploration into ever more frontier territories such as the deep waters off Shetland, Greenland and the high Arctic?

I don’t think we have any choice other than to carry on taking the fight to the fossil fuel industry and I do believe that for all the failings of governments, the battle is still one which can be won. Ironically perhaps it is likely to be the Chinese, who are throwing up coal fired power stations like there is no tomorrow, who will be critical to progress. China is already the largest investor in renewable energy in the world and in its quest for ever more power needs to tap into all possible generation sources.

China is already the largest manufacturer of solar photovoltaic cells in the world, though largely for the export market. However the central government is now supporting expansion of domestic use and by the end of next year there is likely to have been a near 15 fold increase in their installed capacity over three years. With increasing domestic Chinese demand, solar PV could achieve even faster growth than the 30% per annum it has averaged in the last three decades, bringing even lower unit costs and competitiveness against other power sources. What’s more there are experimental solar technologies which are achieving far higher efficiencies than currently available that could be the way forward.

So this is our real hope for the future. Not a governmental agreement in Cancun or wherever next the circus moves on to, but a solar PV industry which makes all other forms of power generation uncompetitive. If we can hold the tide against fossil fuel and agro-fuel expansion over the next decade and make sure that we don’t lock ourselves into dirty technologies, then we might just avoid the worst of those climate changing scenarios.

One small point to end with. If someone tells you that our recent cold snap and the hard winter we had last year are proof that global warming isn’t happening, then just inform them that the UK is less than 0.05% of the Earth’s surface area. This year is going to be the hottest or second hottest on record regardless of what it may feel like to us.

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