Ask the experts: Averting climate change

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Europeans are overwhelmingly convinced that human activity is contributing to global warming, and a majority would be prepared to accept restrictions on their lifestyle to combat it, according to a poll for the Financial Times.

Fly less, pay more: what are individuals really prepared to do to prevent climate change, and how effective are these measures? A panel of experts answer your questions below.

Tony Juniper is executive director of Friends of the Earth, the environmental campaign group.

Professor Dieter Helm of New College, Oxford, a noted expert on climate change economics, says that the costs of decarbonising the world’s economy by 2050 would be much higher than 1 per cent of GDP. “It is a great mistake to tell people costs are low and they can continue their lifestyles, while solving climate change,” he says.


Given the evident difficulties of reducing emissions, why do we not pay much more attention to the possibilities of increasing net absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by new plant growth? The biomass would need to be charred and dug into the soil to be put permanently beyond use, and the scale of operation would need to be large - but it could be funded if governments required fossil fuel producers to buy carbon credits from carbon sequestration farmers to balance exactly the carbon dioxide emitted by use of the fuel they sell.
David Wayne, UK

Dieter Helm: There are lots of potential ways of taking carbon out of the atmosphere - and indeed the fossil fuels being burnt today are essentially just sequestrated carbon in earlier geological periods. But it would be a mistake for government to pick winners - let the various options (including the one you propose) bid against a market price of carbon.

Perhaps your route will be more cost effective than carbon sequestration from coal plants. Perhaps not. But what we need now is a long term price of carbon to create the incentives.

Tony Juniper: We are in the process of releasing carbon that accumulated in fossil fuel deposits over many tens of millions of years. We can’t soak up all that with plants - even a lot of big trees.

Part of the problem is with land availability: there simply isn’t enough to plant sufficient new forest while also producing food. What we can do, however, is to try and halt the continuing loss of natural forests, which each year contributes more carbon dioxide than the whole of the world’s transport emissions.

We also obviously need to get very much more serious about energy efficiency and renewable power technologies.


What do you think is the long-term solution? Nuclear energy, renewables?
Sam Smith, Leeds, UK

Dieter Helm: There is unlikely to be one single solution to the climate change problem. In the short term there are a limited number of technologies available - nuclear, wind and most importantly improving the performance of existing carbon-based plant. But as the century unfolds, technological change should offer lots and lots of new options.

Compare what people might have expected in 1900 would be the technologies of the twentieth century with what actually happened with the challenge facing us now. We can have only the haziest idea of what technologies will become available. That does not mean we should wait, but rather that a big effort should be put into R&D. And of course in the meantime we can all do our bit to reduce our energy consumption, and much can be done to improve the efficiency of our current energy use.


Why haven’t colleges and universities been forced to teach their staff and students of the effects of climate change and how to avoid it? Colleges have a fundamental obligation to be role models for their students and should have a collaborative network set up so that all elements from energy use to waste generation are discussed and best practices developed.
Joseph Borza, Dublin, Ireland

Dieter Helm: It is lamentable that universities, colleges and schools teach so little on environmental issues - and not just climate change. Indeed, knowledge of environmental process, natural history and sustainable development is pitifully low.

What is required is to make environmental studies mainstream as a core part of the curriculum, and not an add-on. Trying to change this neglect is currently an uphill task - but extremely important.

Tony Juniper: Funnily enough I will be teaching a course on climate change at Schumacher College in Devon next February - so at least one such institution is doing it. The priority for me, however, is getting climate change on to the curriculum at business schools. The economic and commercial implications of climate change need to be fully understood by future business leaders as well as well as politicians.


Are most people more worried about the cost of saving the planet, or in simply saving the planet? At the moment, it seems like the most important subject on most people’s mind’s is how much it will cost the global economy. If money was redistributed into the right areas - to those companies that had a vested interest in saving the planet in what they do, then surely there is no need to worry about how much it will cost, because the ultimate price will be that we lose our planet, and our children and grandchildren are the victims of the lack of ethics on our part to do something about it.
Neil, Hampshire

Dieter Helm: It’s a mistake to think anything is priceless, tempting though it might be. There is nothing to which we can - or should - apply an infinite amount of resources to solving. So unfortunately cost does matter, and these costs have to carried by someone. And although climate change is very serious, it is not impossible to reverse some of its most damaging effects - though some of these are already inevitable - at quite low costs. The resources that need to be applied to mitigating climate change could be used elsewhere - for example on alleviating poverty, water shortages and malaria now. And climate change is not the only environmental problem: for example, the destruction of biodiversity is proceeding at an alarming rate, not all of which is caused by climate change.

The important question is how much should be channelled into alleviating climate change now, and the answer is probably quite a lot. But let’s not think that climate change is our only challenge we face.

Tony Juniper: Your first question is important but I think irrelevant. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter whether we protect the environment for economic or ethical reasons. Both are right and both justify urgent action. In terms of the practical tools we have to advance environmental goals, however, I think the most potent ones are economic.

There is no reason not to act with economic policies right away.Researchers at the University of Vermont, led by Robert Costanza published in 1997 a seminal paper in the journal Nature. They looked at the then current economic value of 17 ecosystem services, based on published studies and a few original calculations. For the entire set of services they looked at, the total value was estimated to be in the range of $16-54 thousand billion per year, with an average of $33 thousand billion per year.

Because of the nature of the uncertainties, they said that this should be considered a minimum estimate.

To put this $33 thousand billion figure into context, note that global gross national product in 1997 was around US$18 trillion per year. Thus, the bits of the economy that we do measure are considerably smaller than the parts that we don’t.

More recently the comprehensive Stern Review on the economics of climate change demonstrated how it will be far cheaper to reduce the emissions that it would be to adapt to the consequences of business as usual. Have a look at Stern’s work.

Given the findings of these and other authors, governments should be enacting a wide range of measures now to protect environmental assets.Trading schemes, ecological taxation, regulations, international trade and investment agreements and voluntary actions are all part of the package.


Which industries do you believe stand to profit the most from propagating global warming?
Jay Oduwole

Dieter Helm: The effects of climate change will create some important new markets as we struggle to cope and adapt to higher temperatures - in managing higher temperatures, dealing with diseases, flood defences and so on. There will also probably be greater demand for security services.

However it is unlikely that anyone will actually want to accelerate climate change. And for the oil, gas and coal industries, the faster climate change is manifest, the faster the policy interventions to reduce carbon intensities, which will in turn damage carbon intensive activities. So even the most carbon polluting industries have incentives to mitigate climate change


What are the facts of global warming? We are told that ice caps and sea levels are changing at an alarming rate, yet supposedly glaciers have been thinning for hundreds of years - long before high carbon emissions - and I have heard of no evidence of rising sea levels. I have also heard an analogy that likens the amount of carbon in our atmosphere produced by humans, as a 2.5 square inch patch on a football field. Can humans really be solely responsible for global warming? Or is it merely another product of a fear mongering media?
Martin Hall, Surrey, UK

Dieter Helm: Climate change is supported by a theory about how the greenhouse effect works, and by empirical evidence. The relationships are uncertain: there can be no scientific proof , but the theory and evidence are sufficiently robust for great confidence to be had in the phenomena.

What remains uncertain is how fast and how big the effects might be. But even at the low end the likely damage is large, and action now is a prudent course of action.


Could we allocate targets to countries on a per capita basis?
Ian Dufour, Ipswich, UK

Tony Juniper: We could do this, and arguably it is the fairest way of allocating the Earth’s limited environmental space between its inhabitants. If there is only so much carbon that can be emitted while still keeping global temperatures at a tolerable level, then dividing up that allocation between people makes moral and political sense. If a trading scheme were attached to such per capita scheme then less well off people in

Africa could sell part of their allocation to those going way over, people in the US for example. There are complications, though. For example, should countries like the UK have a lower per capita allowance because of high historic emissions?

Dieter Helm: In theory yes, each country could have a permits quota based upon its population, and in theory the per capita allocation could be equal.

The basis for such an allocation in practice would be a political choice: giving each person exactly the same carbon quota would be a radical egalitarian idea. That’s why the allocation of the burden of reducing carbon emissions raises major questions of social justice.


Do you think it is justified for developing countries and newly industrialised countries like China and India to be allowed to emit carbon dioxide without limits? Burning huge quantities of fossil fuels allowed western economies to grow during and since our industrial revolution but so did cheap labour and poor workers welfare. Would we advocate these practices now simply because we did it in the past?
Ken Hayes, Bristol, UK

Tony Juniper: All countries in the end are going to have to be part of the solution, and all of the big polluters are going to need to cut back. The question is when and how. Given that the industrialised countries are largely responsible for the climate change that is now occurring, it is morally right for them to go first in making the cuts that will avoid much more damaging global warming later on.

If we in the west are successful in making positive change to reduce emissions then it will be far more likely that China, India and others will be willing to take on legally binding cuts later on. We need to adopt a leadership role based on a ‘do as we do’ approach, and not one of ‘do as we say’

Dieter Helm: Nobody has the right to pollute, and in general its a good idea to make polluters pay. But the rapidly developing countries such as India and China are right to say that if they are to mitigate their pollution, we in developing countries should first demonstrate our willingness to deal with the vast bulk of the increased Co2 emissions we caused.


Whatever we do in Europe, how can we hope to deflect China, India, Brazil and all the other countries revelling in economic growth from their path to get rich quick - regardless, even, of what good intentions their governments might profess?
James Best, London

Tony Juniper: There is no need to end development in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Countries will need to do things differently, however. If there is to be an effective programme to cut greenhouse gas emissions then governments both individually and collectively will need to bring forward new economic policies that cut pollution while generating growth, jobs and new enterprise. It can be done, but won’t work through markets alone.

New trade agreements, investment deals, product standards and funding streams will be needed. Governments need to get on the case with this as a matter of urgency.

Dieter Helm: It’s easy to despair at the chances of mitigating climate change. CO2 emissions are priced to rise around 50 per cent by 2030 as China, India and indeed the US too expand energy demand by about the same amount, and based largely on increased coal burning. But its in own (developed countries) interests to mitigate the effects of climate change since we will all suffer the consequences, and hence the real issue is the old Brundtland one of the north-south divide and the transfers from the rich to the developing countries to help them industrialise in a more sustainable way.


Please will you provide me with a reference in say Nature, The Scientific American, or some similar respected publication to a paper which explains quantitatively how Co2 insulates the earth.
J G Waggott, London, UK

Tony Juniper: The science that links rising carbon dioxide concentrations and potential warming of the atmosphere originates from the 19th century.Tim Flannery’s book The Weather Makers provides good source material on this.

A recent literature survey of over 900 scientific papers published in the 10 years up to 2003 in peer-reviewed scientific journals revealed that there is a wide and robust consensus that anthropogenic global warming is real. This survey, among others, confirms that the impression sometimes conveyed in the media of an evenly balanced discussion as to whether human-induced global warming is happening is not justified.

Find the paper on the website of the journal Science.


Obviously, there are numerous green house gases, many of which, like water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane are naturally occurring and not necessarily anything to do with human activity; what percentage of the world’s greenhouse gasses are actually attributable to human activity?
Greg Connell, UK

Tony Juniper: Carbon dioxide is the most important of the greenhouse gases now accumulating at unnatural levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. In pre-industrial times (at the end of the 1700s), Co2 levels were at about 280 parts per million (ppm). Due to the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation they are now at 380 ppm and rising by around two ppm per year. If the warming caused by the other greenhouse gases (such as methane) are taken into account then the total heating effect is at the equivalent of about 430 ppm Co2.

The most important question now is not whether the greenhouse gas build up is causing the Earth to warm, but at what level do we risk unleashing a level of warming that might be deemed ‘dangerous’, in terms of its economic, social and environmental impacts. Estimated in terms of temperature increase, a two degree average temperature rise compared with pre-industrial times is now accepted as a critical threshold (indeed, avoiding this level of warming is at the heart of the EU’s international negotiating positions). The most recent science suggest that there is a 50 per cent chance of causing a two degree temperature increase if we reach around 450 ppm Co2 equivalent. This point will be reached, on present trends, in about a decade.


The UK government claims to lead the world as one of the few developed countries to have reduced its emissions in recent times. However, I have often wondered if part of this was caused by deindustrialisation. In return, capacity in countries with smoke-stack industries has risen to fill UK demand for cheap goods. Has any research been done on calculating what the UK’s real carbon footprint is, including the carbon history of our huge quantity of imports?
Ian Manders, London, UK

Tony Juniper: The UK’s modest apparent reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, presently around 5 per cent below 1990 levels, is in part down to the relocation of heavy industry but is also in explained by fuel switching from coal to gas in the early 1990s. Emissions are now creeping up again as the gas price has risen and more coal has been used as a result. The increase in road transport is also playing a part. Aviation and shipping are excluded from the annual assessments of emissions and if these were included then we are pretty much where we were in 1990.

It is often said by ministers that the UK is responsible for only 2 per cent of global emissions (the implication being that global solutions are needed, rather than decisive action at home). This may be true in terms of the carbon dioxide released from within the UK. However, when the import of goods produced elsewhere are taken into account (including in China), the impacts of British companies overseas are considered (such as Shell burning vast quantities of natural gas in Nigeria) and the deforestation that is carried out to meet our demands (due to our consumption of beef, soya and palm oil for example), then it is very much more than 2 per cent.

Dieter Helm: One of the reasons why industrialised countries have been able to moderate their emissions since 1990 (and hence for some of them to be able to join in the Kyoto targets) is that the recession at the beginning of the 1980s structurally altered economies away from heavy industry towards services. But these industries did not go away - they relocated in the rapidly developing countries of the Far East, China and India. Therefore, in importing from these countries, the developed countries are implicitly responsible for the pollution caused in their manufacture. The US and Europe and therefore polluting much more than the crude emissions data indicates.

However, detailed numbers do not exist for the carbon footprint that results - its an incredibly difficult task which would involve a decomposition of imports and then an analysis of the carbon intensities of their production in the source countries. But an approximation could - and should - be done.


How much will the sea levels rise around Great Britain by 2020 and where can we get access to such projections?
Varuna, London, UK

Dieter Helm: By 2020 the effects on sea levels around Britain are unlikely to be significant. Its later in the century that the effects will come through as global warming both melts the ice and thermal expansion takes place. The scale of these effects is highly uncertain, and it is a mistake to expect precise predictions.


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