Last chance to save the world
The clamour for action on global warming appears to have reached, as climate scientists might put it, a critical tipping point. With report after report keeping the issue in the headlines throughout November, politicians' enthusiasm for mitigating climate change has been almost as high as carbon dioxide levels themselves.
Sir Nicholas Stern's climate analysis for the UK government, published on 30 October, set the scene by translating scientific evidence into financial imperatives. A former World Bank chief economist, Stern concluded that spending one per cent of global GDP on cutting carbon emissions now could prevent the effects of climate change wiping out 20 per cent of GDP in the future. His 700-page report has provided independent and influential support for a scientific consensus that has been growing for decades, framed in fiscal language aimed squarely at politicians.
Planet watch: a flurry of climate reports has put global warming back at the top of the political agenda
'We find it a bit galling that when an economist writes the same thing, everyone stands up and takes notice,' admitted Ian Arbon, chair of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers' energy, environment and sustainability group. But Dave Reay, an atmospheric and climate scientist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, took a more pragmatic view: 'If this is the tipping point, I don't mind if it comes from an economist,' he said.
Stern's 'act now or pay later' warning was echoed by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its World Energy Outlook report, released on 7 November. The IEA also urged governments to invest in alternative energy sources: 'The energy future we are facing today, based on projections of current trends, is dirty, insecure and expensive,' cautioned Claude Mandil, executive director of the IEA. Even though Stern and the IEA had both provided previews of their reports at climate talks in Monterrey, Mexico, on 5 October, their coincident publications gave politicians a fresh spring-board to push the energy agenda, and neatly presaged UN climate change negotiations in Nairobi, Kenya, which ran from 6 to 17 November.
At that meeting, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) pointed out that global warming will hit developing nations hardest; UN Secretary Kofi Annan responded by announcing a new UN plan to help developing countries participate in the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism.
Many argue that the main priority is for richer countries to cut carbon emissions. But disheartening news came from a Unesco-commissioned Global Carbon Project report on 10 November, which revealed that 2000-2005 saw a growth in carbon emissions four times greater than in the preceding ten years, despite emission-cutting initiatives.
One such initiative is the EU's emissions trading scheme (ETS), which has been running since January 2005 and got its first official evaluation on 13 November. The ETS allows energy-producing companies to buy and sell carbon credits that permit them to release regulated quantities of carbon dioxide. This provides a market-driven way to cut emissions, as well as being a dress-rehearsal for Europe's compliance to the Kyoto protocol's trading system, due to begin in 2008.
The evaluation judged the ETS to be relatively successful, and the European Commission is now looking to improve and expand the scheme to include other gases such as methane, and other sectors such as aviation. Stern's report lauded such carbon trading schemes as a crucial step in curbing emissions, but warned that only a global market (such as that envisaged by Kyoto) can cut greenhouse gas emissions on the necessary scale.
And although the United States has not ratified Kyoto, the recent mid-term elections in America may have boosted the cause a little. On 9 November, senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat, California), newly elevated to chair the US Senate's environmental committee, announced that she hoped to introduce laws to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
The UK government unveiled a climate change bill to do just that during the Queen's Speech at the state opening of parliament on 15 November. The bill would create new legislation to ensure the UK achieves a 60 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2050.
Though global consensus on tackling climate change is still a long way away, the issue has rarely sustained such prominent placement at the top of policy-makers' in-trays. As Reay commented on media coverage of the Stern report, 'It's hard to imagine anything bigger to bang politicians' heads together'.
Richard Van Noorden