Saturday, 23 August 2008

Climate change is real, compelling and urgent

Björn Lomborg has been a persistent global warming naysayer and his claims misrepresent my findings

In late 2009, the world's top climate scientists, environmental officials and business and NGO leaders will converge on Copenhagen to negotiate a solution to climate change. It will be a meeting with global repercussions, and its participants will be united by a common belief in the need for a comprehensive solution to this common threat.

The need for such a solution is supported by the best science available, including the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2007 and of which I was a member. The IPCC's message is clear: climate change is real, compelling and urgent - and we need a concerted, comprehensive and immediate effort to confront it.
But in the midst of this momentum and clarity, one voice has stood out as a persistent naysayer.
Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Sceptical Environmentalist, makes headlines around the world by arguing that capping carbon dioxide emissions is a waste of resources. He recently published a piece in the Guardian in which he dismissed efforts to craft a global carbon cap as "constant outbidding by frantic campaigners" to "get the public to accept their civilisation-changing proposals".
To support his argument, Lomborg often cites the Copenhagen Consensus project, a 2008 effort intended to inform climate negotiators. But there's just one problem: as one of the authors of the Copenhagen Consensus Project's principal climate paper, I can say with certainty that Lomborg is misrepresenting our findings thanks to a highly selective memory.
Lomborg claims that our "bottom line is that benefits from global warming right now outweigh the costs" and that "[g]lobal warming will continue to be a net benefit until about 2070." This is a deliberate distortion of our conclusions.

We did find that climate change will result in some benefits for developed countries, but only for modest climate change (up to global temperature increases of 2C - not the 4 degrees that Lomborg is discussing in his piece). But developed countries are relatively prepared to handle climate change's effects - they tend to be in colder areas, and they have the infrastructure to mitigate severe depletion of resources like fresh water and arable land.

That is precisely why our analysis concluded - and Lomborg ignores - that climate change will cause immediate losses for developing countries and the planet's most vulnerable, millions of whom are already facing challenges that climate change will exacerbate.

Downplaying the threat of climate change allows Lomborg to focus on his claim that
"unlike even moderate CO2 cuts, which cost more than they do good, we should focus on investing in finding cheaper low-carbon energy."
He attributes this finding to our analysis as well, but again he overlooks a key element of our work.

Of course the world needs to make significant investments in cheaper, low-carbon energy. But making those investments without also implementing a constraint on emissions would fail to address the problem.

Our analysis assumed that over the next century, $800bn will be spent confronting climate change - $50bn spent on R&D in the next 5-10 years, and the remaining $750bn spent on adaptation and mitigation. This allocation of resources will reduce the cost of "clean" technology and increase the effectiveness of policies - like capping emissions - that are designed to reduce global CO2.

In short, we never advocated research into new technologies as a stand-alone way to fight climate change, nor did we accept Lomborg's dismissive attitude toward the threat climate change poses.

The negotiators in Copenhagen will need credible, accurately reported analyses upon which to base their discussions. This is not the time to deny the scope of the problem or belittle efforts to implement solutions. We need all options on the table. This was the message of the Copenhagen Consensus Challenge paper, and even a sceptical environmentalist should understand that.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

World heading towards cooler 2008

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Finch on frost-covered bush
The early part of 2008 saw continued low temperatures in some regions

This year appears set to be the coolest globally this century.

Data from the UK Met Office shows that temperatures in the first half of the year have been more than 0.1 Celsius cooler than any year since 2000.

The principal reason is La Nina, part of the natural cycle that also includes El Nino, which cools the globe.

Even so, 2008 is set to be about the 10th warmest year since 1850, and Met Office scientists say temperatures will rise again as La Nina conditions ease.

Temperatures given as variations from 1961-1990 average
Warmest on record - 1998 - +0.515C
Coldest on record - 1862 - -0.616C
From 2001 to 2007, varied between +0.400 and +0.479C
2008 January to June - +0.281C
Data from Hadley Centre

"The big thing that's been happening this year is La Nina, which has lowered global temperatures somewhat,"
said John Kennedy, climate monitoring and research scientist at the Met Office's Hadley Centre.

"La Nina has faded in the last couple of months and now we have neutral conditions in the Pacific," he told BBC News.

Scientists at the World Meteorological Organization have also suggested that 2008 will turn out to be cooler than the last few years.

Breaking the ice

La Nina cools waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean, but its effects are felt around the globe.

It is one of a number of natural climatic cycles that can re-inforce or counteract the warming trend stemming from increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

La Nina 2008 Forecast (Source: UK Met Office Hadley Centre)
La Nina translates from the Spanish as "The Child Girl"
Refers to the extensive cooling of the central and eastern Pacific
Increased sea temperatures in the western Pacific mean the atmosphere has more energy, and frequency of heavy rain and thunderstorms is increased
Typically lasts for up to 12 months and generally less damaging event than the stronger El Nino

Earlier this year, one group of researchers suggested that another natural cycle, the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, was likely to hold temperatures steady for about the next decade, before reversing direction and allowing a renewed warming.

"The principal thing is to look at the long-term trend," said Dr Kennedy.

"2008 will still be significantly above the long-term average. There's been a strong upward trend in the last few decades, and that's the thing to focus on."

One of the starkest effects of rising temperatures has been the rapid loss of summer Arctic sea ice, which has accelerated since the year 2000.

Earlier in the year, there were indications that 2008 could see even more ice lost than in the record-breaking melt of 2007.

Currently, the ice appears to be holding together better than a year ago, although scientists are wary as much of it is relatively fragile ice that formed in a single winter.

Canadian authorities have just declared that the Northwest Passage is "navigable", though acknowledging that some parts of it still contain floating ice.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Carbon credits tick all the boxes. What's the delay?

Energy use has to be cut soon, so it's odd that this techno-savvy cabinet still shies away from a simple credit system

Awful August, the weather forecasters call this unseasonably cold, wet month, as holiday-makers huddle against intermittent monsoon downpours, reminded that global warming doesn't necessarily mean a Mediterranean Britain.

Every month, reports from climatologists deliver worse predictions of the speed and tipping points for irreversible climate change. A 4C temperature rise is the latest warning: it would bring unimaginable horror in its wake. The time to act gets shorter, but the political will to act lags ever further behind the science that tells politicians they must do so. Latest figures, including air travel, shipping and energy used in our goods manufactured abroad, show no cut in Britain but an 18% growth in emissions.

If the market is the answer, soaring energy prices should drive down emissions. Road traffic figures showed a 2% drop in car use, with demand for petrol briefly 20% down - but already it is rising again as the price falls. On household energy - responsible for 27% of emissions - it's too early to know the effect of 30% price increases. But as one hour of an old-fashioned lightbulb still only costs 0.8p, energy prices may not be noticed by those who already consume most. Those who will make serious cuts are the poorest and debt-averse pensioners. Official fuel poverty figures are expected to rise to 5 million people this winter: more deaths are expected among the old and cold. Back in Labour's optimistic can-do days in 2000, the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act created a legal obligation to eliminate fuel poverty among the vulnerable by 2010, a target missed by so many light years that Friends of the Earth is seeking a judicial review to get the act enforced. Gordon Brown's plan to buy off the problem with £100 vouchers for the poor is no answer.

What does the public think the answer should be? The Institute for Public Policy Research has just conducted the most extensive consultation so far, with focus groups in Newcastle, Camden, Southwark, Bristol and rural Suffolk across all social groups, as well as a nationwide opinion poll and interviews with energy companies, climate change NGOs and consumer organisations. The results pointed in one clear direction.

Seventy-four per cent said they are "very concerned" or "fairly concerned" about climate change - so politicians can ignore the shrinking, unconcerned minority.

Seventy-one per cent thought action was necessary to curb people's energy use. But there was pessimism about the public changing its behaviour: only one in 10 thought people would drive less or take fewer flights. Naturally, favourite choices were the painless ones - the cheaper, environmentally friendly options. Least popular was any system that taxed energy use.

They were offered three possible government actions. First, a carbon tax could be added to all energy not generated from renewables. Second, a cap on the amount of carbon that companies could emit in selling their energy to consumers would force them to generate more from renewables: they would pass on the extra cost to consumers. But both of these were regarded as too unfair, with the impact felt least by the wealthy who burn most energy.

Personal carbon trading was the most popular option: it was the fairest and it wasn't seen as a new tax.

Here's how it works: each year everyone gets equal carbon credits to spend on petrol, home heating or air travel. People exceeding their quota can buy more credits. People who use less can sell credits. It encourages home insulation, energy saving and less driving or flying. Since low earners use less - 20% have no car, 50% don't fly - they can profit by selling to those with big houses, foreign holidays and gas-guzzling cars. It would be a powerful but voluntary agent for redistribution.

Failure to pursue personal carbon trading (or any other method) joined the long list of good causes killed by Labour cowardice. At Defra, David Miliband took it up with enthusiasm and commissioned a feasibility study, but after he made a strong speech advocating it, Gordon Brown at the Treasury banned any further mention. Miliband was moved away and what was called a "pre-feasibility study", limped out with the judgment that this idea was "ahead of its time". They guessed it would cost £2bn a year to run, threw up sundry obstacles, and the report disappeared.

Odd that a government with computers thinks it can't introduce a simple credit system, when a Nectar or Oyster card shows how easily home and car fuel bills and airline tickets could be deducted. Historian Mark Roodhouse of York University draws comparisons with his work on wartime rationing. Back then the state provided ration books for all, covering not just fuel but coupons valuing virtually every individual item in the shops from clothes to food.

Have we become more administratively incompetent since then? Roodhouse records the wartime internal debates about whether to cut national consumption by raising prices. "They concluded rationing was the only way to achieve dramatic cuts without feeding inflation or causing social unrest," he reports. They, too, considered making ration coupons tradable but decided equality of sacrifice was essential. But Roodhouse considers tradable carbon rations "would improve on the system, preventing black markets in unused coupons". The trading element makes carbon rationing feel more voluntary and less oppressive.

In distribution of wealth, Britain is now back to 1937 levels of inequality, regressing backwards every year: that's what makes any kind of carbon tax or reliance on high prices impossible, the burden falling too unfairly. Doling out ad hoc energy vouchers to the poor at the taxpayers' expense is the wrong answer, and it only adds to the poverty trap by making the step up harder to climb. Will Brown at least pay for it with a windfall tax on profiteering energy companies? But if personal carbon trading is "ahead of its time", that is exactly where we need to be.

Cowardly political leaders dare not tell voters the plain truth that we need to cut energy use. If Miliband makes his run for the leadership, plain speaking about the climate will be one of his pitches - and bravery on personal carbon trading will be a test of candidates' seriousness about both climate and social justice.

Friday, 1 August 2008

UK in 'delusion' over emissions

By Roger Harrabin
BBC environment analyst

The reports challenge the official line that UK emissions are falling

The UK has been living under a delusion over its claim to be cutting greenhouse gases, according to two reports that will shake the climate change debate.

They show that instead of falling since the 1990s, UK greenhouse emissions have been growing in line with the economy.

This is dependent on emissions from aviation, shipping and imported goods being counted.

At the moment they are excluded under the internationally-agreed system for carbon accounts.

Both reports are from the respected Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) based at the University of York.

They are a massive blow to the British government which claimed to have grasped the Holy Grail of climate policy - de-coupling economic growth from emissions growth.

The government has known about this for a very long time but has just refused to face up to it
Stuart Bond, WWF

An SEI report to be published shortly by the campaign group WWF will suggest that

the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions are 49% higher than reported emissions.

And a recent little-publicised report for the government department Defra showed that rather than going down 5% as ministers claimed, CO2 emissions have gone up 18% between 1992 and 2004 when all emissions are counted.

The government sat on the Defra SEI report since February, tested its calculations, then published it in an obscure press release on 2 July.

This confirms, as BBC News pointed out last year, that

the UK's apparently virtuous carbon cuts have only been achieved because we are getting countries like China to do our dirty work.

Consumer boom

Some would say this allows them to be blamed for increasing their CO2 emissions on our behalf.

The Defra-SEI report shows that

as manufacturing in the UK has closed down, some of the production has shifted to countries where manufacturing is more carbon intensive than it would be here - in other words, more CO2 is emitted per unit of production.

At the same time, the long consumer boom has led to an increase in the volume and diversity of products being imported. This in turn leads to increased emissions from cargo shipping. Meanwhile, the cheap flights bonanza has pushed up emissions still higher.

Drier balls (BBC)
The UK exports its emissions to China, the report suggests

Under internationally agreed methodology, emissions from international aviation, shipping and imports are not included in a country's greenhouse gas statistics, so this has allowed the UK government to calculate that its greenhouse gases have been falling.

WWF says the new figures are "breathtaking" and make a mockery of the UK's claims of global leadership.

Stuart Bond, WWF's head of research, said: "This shows our claims on emissions are simply a big lie.

"The government has known about this for a very long time but has just refused to face up to it.

"There is no way the government can hope to achieve any of its emissions targets without cheating unless it changes its policies on encouraging flying and hoping to satisfy people's insatiable demands for buying more and more stuff."

Computer modelling

A Defra source said of its SEI report: "It can't be absolutely precise but it is a best estimate of where we are. It is very much in line with other studies on the subject so we are fairly confident of it. It is very interesting background information."

The source said that it would be impossible to include the catch-all SEI figure alongside the UK's annual official emissions statistics because it was based on import/export figures from the Office of National Statistics which would not be updated until 2010.

It would also be undesirable to publish the figure annually, he said, because the "real" number relevant to the UK was the standard CO2 measure calculated according to UN principles.

The SEI report involved a lot of computer modelling, so the UK government "would not want to be held to an international target on it".

WWF said this was a very "convenient" position for the UK to take.

John Barrett, author of the SEI reports to both Defra and WWF, said they could have implications for any post-Kyoto global climate deal.

"Holding China and India responsible for emissions from manufactured goods they sell to us is going to prove very hard to negotiate.

"It would be much easier to base any future deal on emissions at the point of consumption. That feeds into the equity debate in which poor countries will be allowed to increase their CO2.

"It's at the very least misleading for the UK government to claim reductions while we export our emissions. This is a problem no government wants to face.

"In emissions terms, we are constantly battling against increases of wealth. Every year, we don't even manage to improve our energy efficiency to keep up with wealth increases, let alone to cut emissions.

"There's a very fundamental problem here that no-one really wants to talk about."

New deal

The Defra source said it would be almost impossible to negotiate a new climate deal based on consumer nations taking responsibility for the emissions created from manufacturing the goods they import.

The government's new Climate Change Committee under Adair Turner may advise by the end of the year whether the government should include imported emissions in its CO2 inventory.

Aviation emissions are relatively simple to calculate, although there are disagreements about how the sums are done.

Shipping emissions are more complicated. And accurately tracking embedded carbon in imported goods may prove impossible as supply chains for many manufactured items are diverse and ever-changing.

The SEI says this is not as complicated as some believe. It claims a 5% error potential in their calculations.

SEI says:

  • Under the Kyoto protocol accounting, the UK's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2004 were 657 million tonnes
  • Total GHG emissions including imports and excluding exports in 2004 were 979 million tonnes
  • Our consumer-based GHG emissions are 49% higher than our Kyoto-reported emissions
Trends show that:
  • Between 1992 and 2004, Kyoto GHG emissions report a decrease of 13%
  • Between 1992 and 2004, consumer-based GHG emissions increased by 13%.
The increase for overall greenhouse gases is higher than the CO2 increase because it counts methane from agriculture at a time when the UK rapidly increased meat imports.