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Newsletter 4th May 2007

Cutting carbon dioxide emissions means compromises for the green movement

This week sees the publication of the IPCC Working Group 3 report on climate change mitigation. This takes as given the work already published by WG1 (the scientific basis) and WG2 (impacts and adaptation) and proposes ways in which the extent of climatic changes can be reduced. In our view, the major role ascribed to carbon dioxide by the IPCC remains an unproven hypothesis, and the extent to which emission reductions can influence future temperatures therefore equally uncertain. Nevertheless, it is interesting to look at the debate about how the swingeing cuts called for could be achieved.

First off is the target itself. The Fourth Assessment Report takes a figure of 550ppm as the level below which CO2 concentrations in the air should be contained to avoid “dangerous” climate change. However, there is now a school of thought (perhaps the modern equivalent of the Jacobins) which claims that evidence now shows anything over 450ppm to be dangerous. To achieve such a figure purely by cutting down on fossil fuel use would mean essentially de-carbonising the economy of the industrialised world while ensuring that the present developing world progresses only along a low-carbon route.

Such a dramatic change might be possible if politicians and the general population could be convinced it was necessary. The world would, in effect, have to be put on a war footing, with carbon dioxide emissions as the enemy to be defeated. There is no evidence that we are yet anywhere near such a situation. More to the point, there are deep splits in the ranks of environmental activists – the shock troops of the green army – about what weapons are acceptable.

The only proven source of the steady base load electricity necessary for a modern society to function is nuclear fission. James Lovelock – deeply pessimistic about the effects of what he calls global heating –  recognises this. However, Greenpeace and others stick to their long-established opposition to nuclear power. Some people see bio-fuels as an important component of a lower-carbon future. Others believe they are a distraction and cause more environmental problems than they solve.

Of course, these are not the only options, but they illustrate the point that specific technologies should not to be rejected out of hand. It is ludicrous to suggest that we could rely on wind and solar power entirely. And the agenda for some seems to be to eliminate all private transport and scale back international trade enormously, to take us back to smaller, self-contained economic units; the very reverse of a globalisation trend which has been in progress for centuries.

We also see reported again (for example in the Times and Independent of 3rd May) the concept of seeding the ocean with iron to allow massive algal blooming. If done on a large enough scale, this could result in significant carbon sequestration. But there is a school of thought which finds such “technical fixes” unacceptable, even if they prove to work and have no negative effects. For them, the only answer is to move back to a more primitive society, almost certainly supporting a smaller population.

When the range of views held by those who insist something must be done is so wide, it is difficult to see real concerted action happening anytime soon.

The perils of carbon off-setting

In the meantime, there is carbon off-setting. Disliked by the purists who see it as an excuse not to change lifestyles (but to allow hundreds to delegates to travel to Bangkok for the latest IPCC meeting…), there nevertheless seems to be a role for paying to reduce emissions somewhere else in the world, as long as there is a net global saving. The market for carbon credits (the primary mechanism by which emission rights are traded) grew three-fold from $10bn in 2005 to $30bn last year, according to the World Bank. That represents a large transfer of funds from the industrialised to the developing world which, in principle, must be good. But it all depends what the money is spent on, and how much of it actually reaches the intended target.

The problem, as the Financial Times reported on 26th April, is that many projects are unverified, and a number of intermediaries are making large profits from clients buying carbon credits. The result may be that companies are paying over the odds for carbon savings which may have been undertaken in any case, without carbon credits being paid for. Responsible companies are making sure that they know which projects they are funding and that the work is actually done. Even then, it needs careful analysis to make sure that installing a wind turbine in Africa (for example) is actually doing some good for the local community and not just salving consciences or (heaven forbid) jumping on a PR bandwagon.

Church of England now converted to green Anglicanism

The parallels between environmentalism and religion are now getting closer: too close for comfort, some may say. It has already been reported elsewhere that the Church of England has published a booklet of “green commandments”. Members of the Anglican communion are being exhorted to reduce their carbon footprint via a range of practical energy-saving measures. All sensible stuff if you want to use less energy: car-sharing, taking local holidays, using a toaster rather than a grill, etc.

The point is that carbon reduction has rapidly taken on a moral dimension. This is further evidence of a trend for us all to be shamed into cutting our energy consumption. Whether this will work is another thing. We fairly quickly got the message that drinking and driving was dangerous. We accepted that smoking is a health hazard and that being forced to inhale other people’s smoke was unpleasant. Saving energy must also surely be a good thing, within reason. But until it can be demonstrated that carbon dioxide is bad for us, it must be doubtful that many people will be shamed into a state of carbon neutrality.

Gas shortages in view again?

According to a report in the Times on 30th April, the forthcoming energy White Paper will not address the issue of how additional gas storage capacity is going to be provided in the UK. The recent mild winter may have led to a false sense of security, but only 18 months ago gas stocks were very low, prices shot up and the country’s energy security rested on a knife edge. The same could happen again if next winter is a cold one. The government has an obligation to the electorate to provide energy security, and will not be thanked if it fails.

Temperature records

This April in the UK has set a new record. Provisional figures from the Met Office are for an average temperature of 11.1°C, which will be seen by some as a clear sign of global warming. The only problem is that the previous record (of 10.6°C) was set in 1865. Records are set and broken somewhere every day of the year, and we should be cautious about drawing inferences from individual ones.