Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Global Warming and the Future

Global Warming, the future and the UK Connection
‘The Problem of global warming is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level. It is no good squabbling over who is responsible and who should pay.’
Margaret Thatcher, 8th November 1989.

‘The earth’s climate is delicate, threatened and changing. Though there is no absolute agreement on the balance of factors causing change, or whether it is now possible to slow it, there should be no doubt that climate change exists’
Guardian editorial 21/6/05

One of the problems in writing a brief on the UK and Global Warming is that the general cannot be separated from the particular. Rising temperatures affect so many aspects of the world and its future that to understand Britain’s place within the problem, some understanding of the worldwide perspective is required.

The Scientific Argument on Greenhouse Gases
It is an obvious fact that the earth receives its warmth from the sun. However, certain gases within the earth’s atmosphere have been crucial in helping retain the sun’s heat over the billions of years life has been evolving. Some of the sun’s heat is reflected back into space but the retention of a portion of this heat, absorbed by the gases, has enabled the earth to achieve a temperature ideal for supporting life. Indeed, without such gases the average temperature of the world would have been -15 C instead of 18C.
The first person to make the link between climate and greenhouse gases was the Swedish scientist Svante Arrherius in 1898. He calculated that a doubling of CO2 would increase world temperatures by 5-6C. Other scientists observed that volcanic eruptions of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, which reflects sunlight, causes a degree of cooling. Some have attributed global warming to the lack of volcanic activity in the 20th century. In 1988 the UN established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC’s latest estimate is of a warming of between 1.4 and 5.8C by 2010 depending on what is done to curb gas emissions.

How Bad is It?

‘Greenhouse Gases’:
i)water vapour- 60%; the warmer the air the more it vapour it can hold.

ii) Carbon dioxide- 25% of the gases; human activity causes 8,000,000,000 tons of CO2 to be dumped in the atmosphere every year-it accounts for 62% of human induced warming. 100,000 party balloons equals one ton of CO2.

iii) Methane- this absorbs 23 times as much heat as CO2.

iv)Ozone- less in stratosphere but more now in troposphere.

v)Halocarbons-includes chlorofluoro-carbons or CFCs found in fridge coolants. Takes 1000 years before disperses from atmosphere.

vi)Nitrous oxide- man made chemical, 2-300 times more absorbent of heat than CO2.

vii) Sulphur hexafluoride- small amount but highly absorbent of CO2: 25,000 times more than CO2.

Effects of Global warming by 2050

a)Sea Level Rise: Likely to be 15cm by 2050 and 34cm by 2100. If emissions are stabilized by 2025 the rise in sea level would be cut by half by 2050. Increasing temperatures produce rising sea levels through the expansion caused in sea water. This has caused levels to rise several inches in the last century. In the longer term the melting of the Greenland ice cap would be a massive 23 ft rise in sea level. This would inundate many low-lying cities and countries: the Maldives would disappear for a start; the eastern coast of the USA from Boston to Miami would be swamped along with London, the Nile Delta, Holland and Bangladesh.

b) Deforestation: trees absorb CO2 so cutting down trees accentuates the problem. If deforestation continues as at present then by 2050 there will be an increase of 15% in CO2.

c) Crops Collapse
Crop yields have to double by 2050 to keep pace with rising population. Scientists say crop yields however will suffer a 50% loss by this date if CO2 levels keep rising as at present.

d) Tropical Storms
Some 50 storms in the tropics reach hurricane status every year but in recent years warmer waters have caused an increase; experts predict a possible doubling. Warming seems to cause more volatility with more frequent sudden storms- even tornados in Britain- and even cold spells.

Two thirds of fish stocks in the North Sea have moved north in search of colder waters. Warm water also contains smaller amounts of oxygen which causes further dwindling of stocks.

f) Disease
Areas where mosquitoes can thrive are likely to extend from 45% of the earth’s surface to 60% by 2050. Moreover there will be more deaths from heat exhaustion etc. In 2003 15,000 people were killed in France as a result of the heat wave plus 2000 in UK.

g)Perma-frosted Areas. These comprise 27% of the earth’s surface, mostly in Arctic areas of Asia. As they slowly melt they:
i) cause subsidence or collapse of roads, houses and pipelines in countries like Canada, China and Russia.
ii) threaten to release huge amounts of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as well as huge amounts of the even more greenhouse, methane. The impact of released methane is incalculable.

h) Glacier Melts
The Observer 20th November told the story of the village of Ghat in Nepal. It was swept away when a lake, high in the Himalaya burst its banks as a result of a glacier melting. In the week beginning 14th November scientists reported a tenfold increase in such events, as a result of global warming. 24 lakes both in Bhutan and Nepal are on the brink of bursting their banks. In 1994 Luggye Tsho in Bhutan burst its banks and 10 million cubic meters of water swept down the mountainside, killing 21 people 50 miles away. Future disasters in the area, according to Nature magazine, are ‘floods, droughts, land erosion, bio-diversity loss and changes in rainfall and the monsoon.’. Great rivers like the Indus, yellow River and the Ganges will dwindle to a trickle with all that implies for drinking water and irrigation. In the short term it’s too much water but long term it’s the reverse. Temperatures will rise in the area by 3C by the end of the century. Hydro-electric plants are also at risk as the melt continues.

i) Gulf Stream: one view of global warming sees wine being produced in Yorkshire and Scarborough becoming more like Nice. But another sees the melting of the arctic ice-cap as stopping the mechanism which causes the Gulf Stream: the downdraught of water from the north Atlantic which then pulls warmer water closer to the surface across the ocean as it currently does to our advantage. Without it UK would suffer the same climate as northern Norway.

Developing World Usage Fossil Fuels: Transport

While the west gobbles up the world’s resources and has only recently has realized the error of its ways-and not all of the west at that of course- the developing world has slowly been emerging and in the process producing more and more greenhouse gases. China in 1989 used bicycles in cities to a huge degree. Now all that is changing. In 2004 the 1.3 billion Chinese bought 4 million new cars and numbers are doubling every four years. Within 25 years they will have more cars than the USA. New plant is being set up and owning a car is becoming a highly achievable consumer dream. Similarily, India bought one million new cars in 2004 and is increasing at the rate of 20% per annum. Car ownership in Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa are growing at comparable rates. Yet the difference is still huge. There are 745 vehicles for every 1000 people in the USA with slightly lower rates in Europe. But in India and China the rate is still only 8 in a 1000. Transport provides 26% of UK’s output of greenhouse gases and is its single biggest single source of global emissions.

So it is very worrying that transport is booming so vibrantly in the developing world. It could exceed transport in the developed world within five years. If growth continues as at present there could be 3.5 billion cars by 2050: four times the present figure. At that level further growth will be impossible. Oil production at present is barely able to meet the needs of 795 million vehicles; it is inconceivable it could meet the needs of four times that number. What is seldom realized is that actually producing cars absorbs huge amounts of oil. Each car requires up to 55 barrels of oil and runs on tyres which are 40% oil also.

Aviation is an even greater worry, especially as there are no economic or physical limits set for the industry. Aircraft have increased their emissions by 50% over the past ten years and the current increase is 4% per annum. Currently aircraft provide 3.5% of emissions- this will reach 5% in 25 years. By 2030 if air travel increases as at present then all the gains of Kyoto will be cancelled out. If 10% of Chinese and Indian people took the equivalent of a return flight from London to New York once a year, about 850million extra tonnes of greenhouse gases would be emitted, causing huge problems. Yet, can we legitimately deny developing countries what we have enjoyed for so long?

Economic Growth/Kyoto
India, China, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa are not signatories to Kyoto so are not in any way bound by its terms. This is especially concerning as these are the countries, still using outdated technology, who will cause the most pollution: China for example is expanding its coal fired electricity stations at a huge rate so that its coal consumption is increasing at 20% per annum; it will overtake the US by 2040. At the same time China is facing astonishing environmental effects of global warming: droughts, disappearing glaciers, non productive farms, tropical storms. India has based its transformation on service industries not manufacturing so appears less polluting but its car use- mainly by its new affluent middle class- is soaring: ‘Millions are borrowing to buy air conditioners, washing machines and fridges’(Observer, ibid)

Barriers to the Change Needed

The Kyoto Protocol, won at great expense of effort in 1997, set targets for reducing emissions by certain dates. Most of Europe- France, Germany, Italy, UK- plus Japan and Canada signed the agreement and agreed to reduce emissions by 2010 to below 1990 levels. Bill Clinton, the Democratic president, was behind the move, together with his Vice President Al Gore. But both politicians signed the protocol in the knowledge that the US Senate would not ratify unless developing as well as developed countries signed up too. Some reports estimated a substantial decline in GDP if the targets for the US were met. Corporate lobbyists were intent on nullifying the climate warming message.

However, the administration of George Bush has refused to accept that global warming is caused by human activity. In the run up to the Gleneagles G8 summit in July 2005 the hand of the US was seen in many amendments to draft position papers on this subject. This applied to explanations for global warming and to pledges for financial assistance to energy saving research projects. Bush and his coterie are drawn from the oil industry and it seems they are unwilling to sacrifice present prosperity for future survival. At a press conference shortly before G8, Bush pointedly refused to accept global warming is manmade. Instead he held that any such problems, if they are caused by technology, could and would be solved by technology. Many critics argue that, given that USA produces 25% of the world’s emissions based on only 5% of its population, it has an obligation to the rest of the world to take a lead on this crucial issue.

Myron Ebell
In advance of the summit the British Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor David King, said global warming posed more of a threat to the future of the world than terrorism. This prompted an attack from one Myron Ebell, an American who has advised Bush who is director of Global Warming Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a non profit public policy group in Washington but which is funded by the oil industry. He accepts King is a distinguished chemistry professor but says he is no climate scientist and that ‘the advice he is giving the government is poor’. Ebell has appeared on Radio 4’s Today where he sweepingly dismissed European calls for a reduction in emissions as the complaint of economies which could not keep up with the USA. Consequently Europe was seeking to reduce the gap by burdening the US economy with constraints which were unjustifiable and based on inadequate evidence. Writing in The Guardian 2nd November 2005, he claimed he was not a ‘climate change denier’, continuing:

‘There is no doubt that the climate has always been changing and that human activity –especially burning vast quantities of coal, natural gas and oil- now play a significant role in causing current changes. ….the scientific evidence suggests that the rate of increase in global mean temperature is modest and likely to remain so; that the potential adverse impacts of global warming have been vastly exaggerated; and that the policies designed to seal with global warming –such as the Kyoto Protocol- pose a much greater threat to human flourishing than does global warming…’

Ebell accused George Monbiot-the Guardian’s columnist who concentrates on the environment- of being one of the ‘leftist propagandists who will seize on any alleged crisis to advocate more centralized government control over people’s lives.’ While some so called experts doubt the fact of global warming they represent probably less than 1% of scientists while the remaining 99% form the worldwide consensus that it is an established fact. Well over a fifth of Americans in a poll following Hurricane Katrina attributed it to an effect of global warming.

Within the US Bush’s administration has waged war on climatologists who argue the ‘wrong’ case. According to the Observer, 19th June, 2005, it has interfered with research linking warming to human activity, blocking the reappointment of Dr Robert Watson to the top position of the IPCC. It has also insisted on the removal of sections it dislikes from official reports. In March 2005 Rick Piltz, a senior member of the US Global Change Research Office, resigned on the basis that the White House had ‘politicized’ the science programme. Cheney even appointed an Energy task Force packed with oil executives to produce the foundations of new legislation. The Union of Concerned Scientists gathered 60 eminent scientists including 12 Nobel Prize winners to condemn the Bush government for distorting findings counter to its political beliefs.

Possible Answers

International Cooperation

Kyoto protocol 1997
This international gathering took place under the aegis of the UN in 1997 whereby the signatories undertook to reduce their emissions of CO2 and five other greenhouse gases or engage in emissions trading if they maintain or increase emissions of these gases. Critics have pointed out that even if Kyoto goals are met the reductions will only be very small. But according to the Observer 19th June the best case scenario suggests that temperature increases will stabilize at 1.5C until the end of the century if carbon emissions are reduced substantially. As of September 2005, following Russia’s surprise ratification in November 2004, 156 countries had ratified the agreement, representing over 61% of global emissions. USA and Australia were among those who did not ratify. Developing countries were excluded from the treaty in any case- much to the opposition of the USA. Russia’s joining in 2004 brought the treaty into force as the emissions represented by signatories than exceeded 55%. ‘Those countries which have done well at reducing can ‘sell’ their ‘savings’ to those who have not done so well. London has emerged as the centre of such trading. The EU agreed to cut emissions by 8% on 1990 levels; fines will be levied on those countries which fail to meet their obligations.
USA claims to be supportive of the aims of Kyoto but Bush will not ratify the ‘flawed treaty’. However, 10 states in the northeast plus 25 US cities representing 35million Americans have cooperated to support the treaty and to try and set their own emission reduction targets so that there is an emergent de facto recognition of Kyoto by an increasing proportion of the USA.

Technological: It follows that what technology can do it can also, to a degree. Undo.

a) Cars: driving a car accounts for about 40% of the average person’s emissions so a ‘greener’ car is a good start. i)There a ‘biocars’ made by Saab, which run off wood chip, wheat and sugar.
ii) Prius by Toyota is a hybrid which has petrol plus electric power to maximize efficiency.
iii) Hydrogen fuel cell cars: these have no emissions at all; the hydrogen car would only produce water. The technology is there but unit costs are prohibitively high at present.
Biocars are popular in Sweden and Brazil while hybrids are becoming so in London to beat the congestion charge and in California.

b) Home heating: fuel cells created from methanol or other natural ‘biomass’ sources might take over energy needs in the future. Over 30% of our energy needs exist in the home so this is a major area.

c) Solar cells: these can be embodied in clothing as well as placed on buildings and the technology is moving ahead but there is a limit to the amount of such power where the sun does not shine.

d) Renewables: these comprise energy from wind, wave and tide. Potentially these could provide 40% of UK needs. The problem with the wind is that it does not always blow but it is a source and is being developed even though some object strongly to the adverse impact wind mills have on the skyline.

e) Storing CO2: it has been suggested the gas could be turned into liquid and then stored in coalmines or even under the sea in spaces left by oil and gas deposits or in natural spaces like ‘saline aquifers’. Such an experiment is in operation off the coast of Norway.

f) Ocean absorbtion: this idea is based on adding iron to parts of the ocean which then creats algae which then absorbs CO2. This seems a questionable answer however.

g) Clouds reflective: some scientists suggest we make clouds reflect heat: one reckons that if a 3% cloud coverage of the earth could be so adjusted, it would balance out the warming effects of greenhouse gases.

h) Stratosphere particles: University California have suggested sending up fine particles into the stratosphere to reflect sun at that level. This would have major effect say the boffins.

i) Screen between sun and earth: the same scientist as above suggests the construction of a fine wire screen to deflect infra red rays around the world.
However many of these ideas will prove impractical, too expensive or otherwise unacceptable to some.

Maybe we should look to what we can do ourselves to reduce our ‘carbon footprint’:
a) moderate transport use/change car/use public transport.
b) take train rather than fly or use Climate care to compensate for your journey.
c) insulate home/ turn down thermostat/wear woolly jumpers
d) eat local produce and not imported varieties.

UK and Global Warming
The British government is broadly supportive of Kyoto; indeed John Prescott worked with conspicuous zeal to improve its terms. UK agreed to reduce emissions by 12.5% on 1990 levels by 2010. Public opinion is emphatic in its support for government action. In a poll on 21st June 2005 by ICM in The Guardian: 40% saw climate change as already a ‘threat’; 86% see national governments as responsible for acting on climate change; 83% wanted Blair to challenge Bush at the G8 summit; 69% would support a wind farm within 20 miles of their home (only 19% would support a nuclear power station); 61% oppose a pollution tax on air travel; 26% of people have ‘done a lot’ to change the way they live; 51% have done a ‘little’ and 20% ‘nothing at all’. The poll showed concern existing in all socio-economic groups and across the political spectrum. British airlines signed an agreement during the summer of 2005 promising to cut emissions by 50% emissions per seat.

Despite the opposition to nuclear power, UK lack of success in meeting aspects of their Kyoto targets-currently emissions are rising not falling- led to the revival of interest in nuclear power- which at present produces only just over a fifth of the nation’s power compared to 70% in France. Business demanded on 21st November that the government clarify its position on the subject; a sizeable proportion of Britons are unhappy about nuclear energy however as nuclear waste takes thousands of years to become safe. Labour’s manifesto offered a 20% emissions reduction target by 2010 plus one of 10% for the proportion of energy to be produced by wind power by the same year. What progress made by UK has, ironically, been a byproduct of Thatcher’s decision to close the pollution producing coal mines. Blair and his energetic Environment secretary Margaret Beckett, have been conspicuous in their advocacy of controls but on 2nd November 2005 Blair seemed to backtrack and say ‘voluntary’ rather than compulsory targets were the best way forward. This caused environmental groups to blow fuses but Margaret Beckett claimed in a letter to The Guardian on 4th November that her boss’s position had not fundamentally changed.

On 13th November the government’s climate change review was leaked to the papers; it reported on progress towards Kyoto targets. The review makes clear the scale of the challenge, given the increase in emissions caused by the switch to coal for cost reasons in a number of power stations: 4.5 million tons since 1997. DEFRA calculates current policies will reduce emissions by about 20million tons by 2010 but to meet the 20% target an additional 14 million tons will need to be pared off our annual levels. Suggestions, in three categories, include (bracketed figures show projected savings in million tones carbon):

a) Pollution caps on UK business and public sector (0.3)
b) Extend UK participation in EU carbon trading scheme (4.2)
c) Improve household energy efficiency (0.3)
d) New requirements for local government (0.4)

a) Link winter fuel payments to energy efficiency (0.07)
b) Store carbon underground (0.5-2.5)
c) Make energy suppliers use more offshore turbines (1.0)
d) Better enforcement of building regulations (0.1)

a) change road speeds (1.7)
b) replace inefficient boilers (0.5)
c) increase car sharing (0.5)


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