Cool heads needed in a warming climate

Alun James says Wales has an opportunity to lead the way in the imperative to reduce carbon emissions

It’s a disheartening fact that on 9 May the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as measured by an observatory in Hawaii, topped the symbolically important level of 400 parts per million.

So what’s the big deal with 400? Well, climate experts say it’s a CO2 level the planet hasn’t seen for over three million years. It’s also a warning that we’re heading for 450ppm within a few decades – this being the level which gives us a 50:50 chance of keeping average global warming to less than 2C, the internationally agreed limit.

It’s worth noting that before the industrial revolution the CO2 concentration was about 280ppm but since then we have released more than 375 billion tonnes of it, mainly from the burning of coal, oil and gas.

The Hawaii data is not the only item of sobering climate news. A few months ago, the World Bank issued a truly frightening report stating:

“Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is likely to warm by more than 3°C above the preindustrial climate. Even with the current mitigation commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20 per cent likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s”.

They added that a further warming to levels over 6°C, with several metres of sea-level rise, would likely occur over the following centuries.

You may want to sit down for the next bit: A recent report by the Club of Rome claimed that an increase over 4C could mean an acceleration of global warming past tipping points, eventually diminishing the carrying capacity of the planet to fewer than a billion people, not the 7 billion-plus of us now living!

Now I’m worried I may have lost you with that last warning.  Are such assertions by experts just unpalatable? Will people just glaze over, switch off, ignore the facts and hope the problem goes away?

Well, it won’t. Not unless we do something. So what can be done? First of all, let’s not give up on keeping global warming to less than 2C above pre-industrial times.

Even though this amount of warming would cause huge problems, with major impacts on agriculture in the tropics, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, droughts and loss of biodiversity, it’s incomparably better than the plus-4C scenario.

Staying below a 2C rise will be no mean feat. It requires us to leave at least two thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground, unless carbon capture and storage technology is widely deployed. So it was encouraging to see, in April, the International Monetary Fund call for an end to the $1.9 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies handed out worldwide each year.

Speaking as a Welsh resident, it means we also need to think hard before we start exploiting even more fossil fuels like shale and coal gas here in Wales.

Of course we need to keep the lights on, but this doesn’t mean we need a new dash for gas power stations. A recent study by Cambridge Econometrics has shown that a serious push for more offshore wind energy could create 70,000 UK jobs more than reliance on gas and could save £8 billion a year on gas imports by 2030. We can also do much more to harness other renewable sources to provide our heat and electricity and, of course, to improve energy efficiency.

Secondly, politicians can make a real difference by making the right choices, nationally and internationally:

  • In Wales, there is a commitment, agreed by all Parties in the National Assembly, to reduce carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2020. We should now push for a clear route-map on how this can be achieved. Welsh politicians needn’t fear they would be out of step in doing more to decarbonise energy; public opinion polls in Wales show a clear majority in favour of renewables.
  • At the UK level there is still a chance that the Energy Bill going through Parliament can be amended to require a reduction in the carbon emitted by our power stations, and to do more to encourage energy efficiency.
  • On the global scale, there’s a huge opportunity for real progress coming up in 2015, with a UN Convention in Paris intending to get all countries to agree to set legal limits on carbon emissions.

We need our politicians to do more than tip-toe their way along the decarbonisation path.

Bold leadership by the Welsh Government would show we are willing to play our part in dealing with the problem, and it could also have economic benefits by convincing low-carbon companies that Wales is the place to do business. The green economy is already growing in the UK at 4.7 per cent per year[viii], far faster than the economy in general. Further development of this sector fits in well with the Welsh Government’s broader vision for sustainable development, which must be the eventual goal if we care about future generations.

So my message is this: despite the grim figures, let’s not bury our heads in the sand. Let’s heed the warnings. Let’s show decision makers in Wales and around the world that we are truly concerned and let’s urge them to act on climate change while there is still be time to avoid the worst consequences.

Alun James is Policy Officer at WWF Cymru

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