Report warns of disastrous consequences of delaying climate change action
'It is not in doubt that if the science is right, the consequences for our planet are literally disastrous. And this disaster is not set to happen in some science fiction future, many years ahead, but in our lifetime.' These were the words of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair at th...
'It is not in doubt that if the science is right, the consequences for our planet are literally disastrous. And this disaster is not set to happen in some science fiction future, many years ahead, but in our lifetime.' These were the words of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair at the launch of a new report on climate change.
The report, known as the Stern Review after its author Sir Nicholas Stern, gives a stark warning about the likely impacts of climate change if the world continues to follow a 'business as usual' approach, but also highlights what can be done now to reduce the impact. The report also debunks the theory that cutting emissions is harmful to competitiveness.
The current level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is equivalent to around 430 parts per million (ppm) of CO2. A comparison with the atmosphere prior to the Industrial Revolution, when the level was 280ppm, shows how far we have already come in terms of emissions. These concentrations have already caused the world to warm by more than 0.5&#deg;C and according to the report, will lead to at least a further half degree of warming over the next few decades because of the inertia in the climate system.
Even if the annual flow of emissions did not increase beyond today's rate, levels of greenhouse gases would reach twice those of pre-industrial times by 2050, making them 550ppm. As the annual flow of emission is accelerating as fast-growing economies invest in high-carbon infrastructure and demand for energy and transport increases, the level of 550pm could be reached as early as 2035.
It is difficult to predict the precise impact that this is likely to have on global temperatures, but models suggest an increase of over 2&#deg;C.
Warming will lead to: melting glaciers, and in turn an increased flood risk and a reduction in fresh water supplies; declining crop yields; malnutrition and heat stress; the spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever; the extinction of between 15% and 40% of species.
Poorest countries will suffer the most, but the West will not be immune to natural disasters. An increase in hurricane wind speed of between 5% and 10%, due to rising sea temperatures, is predicted to approximately double annual damage costs in the US. In the UK, annual flood losses could increase from today's level of 0.1% of GDP to between 0.2% and 0.4% if temperatures rise by 3 or 4&#deg;C. Heatwaves such as that experienced in Europe in 2003 when 35,000 people died and agricultural losses reached almost €12 billion, will be commonplace by the middle of this century.
'Some will always make a case for doubt in an issue such as this, partly because its implications are so frightening,' said Mr Blair. 'But what is not in doubt is that the scientific evidence of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions is now overwhelming.'
Although the results of any actions taken now may not be visible for many years to come, it is not too late to slow global warming. The Stern Review highlights four ways in which greenhouse gas emissions can be cut: reducing demand for emissions-intensive goods and services; increased efficiency; action on non-energy emissions, such as avoiding deforestation; switching to lower carbon technologies for power, heat and transport.
None of these paths have to affect competitiveness, the report makes clear: 'Despite the historical pattern and the [business as usual] projections, the world does not need to choose between averting climate change and promoting growth and development. Changes in energy technologies and the structure of economies have reduced the responsiveness of emissions to income growth, particularly in some of the richest countries.'
The report recommends a portfolio of technologies: 'It is highly unlikely that any single technology will deliver all the necessary emission savings, because all technologies are subject to constraints of some kind, and because of the wide range of activities and sectors that generate greenhouse gas emissions.' The report adds that it is also as yet unknown which technologies will be the cheapest.
Sir Nicholas recognises that the private sector is the biggest driver of innovation, but calls on governments to do more to encourage research and development (R&D), and to encourage international research collaboration. 'Technology cooperation enables the sharing of risks, rewards and progress of technology development and enables coordination of priorities,' he writes.
'A global portfolio that emerges from individual national R&D priorities and deployment support may not be sufficiently diverse, and is likely to place too little weight on some technologies that are particularly important for developing countries, such as biomass,' reads the paper. The report goes on to urge formal multilateral research agreements, informal arrangements for greater cooperation and enhanced linkages between national programmes.
The UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, already has ambitious targets in mind for new technologies. 'Take biofuels - I am determined that we use biofuel from palm and rape oil to soya and sugar, and then eventually use cellulosic biofuels and potentially even hydrogen, to replace petrol and diesel with low or no carbon alternative,' he said at the launch of the report. He announced the establishment of a new joint task force with Brazil, South Africa and Mozambique to promote the development of a sustainable regional biofuels.
'But we will go further,' Mr Brown added. 'We will, in future Budgets, also incentivise the next generation of cellulosic biofuels - so that with this and other incentives for reducing emissions, the energy technology institute for promoting innovation, and international agreements for building consensus, Britain will be at the forefront of achieving a high growth, low carbon economy. So climate change is not just a challenge but an opportunity.
Mr Blair finished his presentation with a call for action. 'We know it is happening. We know the consequences for the planet. We now know urgent action will prevent catastrophe and investment in preventing it, will pay us back many times over. We will not be able to explain ourselves to future generations if we fail.'