you warn people about the dangers of climate change, they call you a
saint. When you explain what needs to be done to stop it, they call
you a communist. Let me show you why.
now a broad scientific consensus that we need to prevent temperatures
from rising by more than 2°C above their pre-industrial level. Beyond
that point, the Greenland ice sheet could go into irreversible meltdown,
some ecosystems collapse, billions suffer from water stress, droughts
could start to threaten global food supplies. (1,2)
proposes to cut the UK’s carbon emissions by 60% by 2050. This
target is based on a report published in 2000. (3) That report was based
on an assessment published in 1995, which drew on scientific papers
published a few years earlier. The UK’s policy, in other words,
is based on papers some 15 years old. Our target, which is one of the
toughest on earth, bears no relation to current science.
past fortnight, both Gordon Brown and his adviser Sir Nicholas Stern
have proposed raising the cut to 80%. (4,5) Where did this figure come
from? The last G8 summit adopted the aim of a global cut of 50% by 2050,
which means that 80% would be roughly the UK’s fair share. But
the G8’s target isn’t based on current science either.
In the new
summary published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),
you will find a table which links different cuts to likely temperatures.
(6) To prevent global warming from eventually exceeding 2°, it suggests,
by 2050 the world needs to cut its emissions to roughly 15% of the volume
up the global figures for carbon dioxide production in 2000 (7) and
divided it by the current population. (8) This gives a baseline figure
of 3.58 tons of CO2 per person. An 85% cut means that (if the population
remains constant) the global output per head should be reduced to 0.537t
by 2050. The UK currently produces 9.6 tons per head and the US 23.6t.
(9,10) Reducing these figures to 0.537t means a 94.4% cut in the UK
and a 97.7% cut in the US. But the world population will rise in the
same period. If we assume a population of 9bn in 2050 (11), the cuts
rise to 95.9% in the UK and 98.3% in the US.
figures might also be out of date. In a footnote beneath the table,
the panel admits that “emission reductions . . . might be underestimated
due to missing carbon cycle feedbacks”. What this means is that
the impact of the biosphere’s response to global warming has not
been fully considered. As seawater warms, for example, it releases carbon
dioxide. As soil bacteria heat up, they respire more, generating more
CO2. As temperatures rise, tropical forests die back, releasing the
carbon they contain. These are examples of positive feedbacks. A recent
paper (all the references are on my website) estimates that feedbacks
account for about 18% of global warming. (12) They are likely to intensify.
A paper in
Geophysical Research Letters finds that even with a 90% global cut by
2050, the 2° threshold “is eventually broken.” (13)
To stabilise temperatures at 1.5° above the pre-industrial level
requires a global cut of 100%. The diplomats who started talks in Bali
yesterday should be discussing the complete decarbonisation of the global
It is not
impossible. In a previous article I showed how by switching the whole
economy over to the use of electricity and by deploying the latest thinking
on regional supergrids, grid balancing and energy storage, you could
run almost the entire energy system on renewable power. (14) The major
exception is flying (don’t expect to see battery-powered jetliners)
which suggests that we should be closing rather than opening runways.
account for around 90% of the necessary cut. Total decarbonisation demands
that we go further. Preventing 2° of warming means stripping carbon
dioxide from the air. The necessary technology already exists (15):
the challenge is making it efficient and cheap. Last year Joshuah Stolaroff,
who has written a PhD on the subject, sent me some provisional costings,
of £256-458 per ton of carbon. (16,17) This makes the capture
of CO2 from the air roughly three times as expensive as the British
government’s costings for building wind turbines, twice as expensive
as nuclear power, slightly cheaper than tidal power and 8 times cheaper
than rooftop solar panels in the UK(18). But I suspect his figures are
too low, as they suggest this method is cheaper than catching CO2 from
purpose-built power stations(19), which cannot be true. (20)
Protocol, whose replacement the Bali meeting will discuss, has failed.
Since it was signed, there has been an acceleration in global emissions:
the rate of CO2 production exceeds the IPCC’s worst case and is
now growing faster than at any time since the beginning of the industrial
revolution. (21) It’s not just the Chinese. A paper in the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences finds that “no region is decarbonizing
its energy supply. “(22) Even the age-old trend of declining energy
intensity as economies mature has gone into reverse. (23) In the UK
there is a stupefying gulf between the government’s climate policy
and the facts it is creating on the ground. How will we achieve even
a 60% cut if we build new coal plants, new roads and a third runway
the immediate problem is a much greater one. In a lecture to the Royal
Academy of Engineering in May, Professor Rod Smith of Imperial College
explained that a growth rate of 3% means economic activity doubles in
23 years. (24) At 10% it takes just 7 years. This we knew. But Smith
takes it further. With a series of equations he shows that “each
successive doubling period consumes as much resource as all the previous
doubling periods combined.” In other words, if our economy grows
at 3% between now and 2040, we will consume in that period economic
resources equivalent to all those we have consumed since humans first
stood on two legs. Then, between 2040 and 2063, we must double our total
consumption again. Reading that paper I realised for the first time
what we are up against.
But I am
not advocating despair. We must confront a challenge which is as great
and as pressing as the rise of the Axis powers. Had we thrown up our
hands then, as many people are tempted to do today, you would be reading
this paper in German. Though the war often seemed impossible to win,
when the political will was mobilised strange and implausible things
began to happen. The US economy was spun round on a dime in 1942 as
civilian manufacturing was switched to military production. (25) The
state took on greater powers than it had exercised before. Impossible
policies suddenly became achievable.
issues in Bali are not technical or economic. The crisis we face demands
a profound philosophical discussion, a reappraisal of who we are and
what progress means. Debating these matters makes us neither saints
nor communists; it shows only that we have understood the science.
1. See, for
2007. Climate change and its impacts in the near and long
term under different scenarios and:
2. Hans Joachim
Schellnhuber (Editor in chief), 2006. Avoiding
Dangerous Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.
Commission On Environmental Pollution, June 2000. Energy
— the Changing Climate.
Brown, 19th November 2007. Speech on Climate Change.
5. Sir Nicholas
Stern, 30th November 2007. “Bali: Now the rich must pay.”
Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Fourth Assessment Report. Climate
Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Summary for Policymakers,
7. All the
figures are for CO2 from the burning and flaring of fossil
9. The latest
figures are for 2005. http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/international/iealf/tableh1co2.xls
figures for 2005.
is a conservative assumption.
G. Canadell et al. 25th October 2007. Contributions
to accelerating atmospheric CO2 growth from economic activity, carbon
intensity, and efficiency of natural sinks. Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences.
J. Weaver et al, 6th October 2007. “Long term climate implications
of 2050 emission reduction targets.” Geophysical Research Letters,
Vol. 34, L19703. doi:10.1029/2007GL031018, 2007.
Monbiot, 3rd July 2007. “A
Sudden Change of State.” The Guardian.
Zeman, 26th September 2007. Energy and Material Balance of CO2 Capture
from Ambient Air. Environmental Science & Technology, Vol. 41, No.
21, pp7558-7563. 10.1021/es070874m
figures are $140-250/US ton-CO2. I have converted them into £/metric
tonne-C. The weight of CO2 is 3.667x that of C.
17. You can
read his PhD here.
of Trade and Industry (now the DBERR), 2003. Energy
White Paper — Supplementary Annexes, p7.
19. The DBERR
gives figures for C savings through capture-ready power stations of
20. It cannot
be true because the concentration of CO2 in thermal power station effluent
is many times higher than that in ambient air.
G. Canadell et al, ibid.
R. Raupach et al, 12th June 2007. Global
and regional drivers of accelerating CO2 emissions. Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol.104, no. 24. Pp 10288–10293.
A Smith, 29th May 2007. “Lecture to the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Carpe Diem: The dangers of risk aversion.” Reprinted in Civil
Engineering Surveyor, October 2007.
Doyle, 2000. Taken for a Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and the Politics
of Pollution, pp1-2. Four Walls, Eight Windows, New York.
Monbiot is the author of the best selling books, The Age of
Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: the Corporate
Takeover of Britain; as well as the investigative travel books Poisoned
Arrows, Amazon Watershed and No Man’s Land. He writes a weekly
column for the Guardian newspaper (UK). Visit George's website.
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