The Copenhagen Conference is underway, but 2009 has already been an eventful year
The newspapers are currently packed with climate change stories. Since we ran our first annual climate change update in 2003, this subject has become one of the most widely-reported topics in the media.
The initial controversy (“is climate change happening?”) has died down and far more column-inches are now being devoted to analysis of the emerging impacts of climate change as well as mitigation efforts.
In the shadow of the Copenhagen conference – the biggest governance landmark since Kyoto in 1997 - we summarise some of the more newsworthy recent global warming stories.
The latest reporting on climate change and its impacts
The latest thinking about climate change mitigation
The state of Arctic sea ice – recently investigated by geographer and explorer Pen Hadow – continues to be one of the most important indicators of climate change for scientists. And although the melting trend is uneven from year to year, the long-term pattern suggests the Arctic could be ice-free in another twenty years. Other worrying indicators of change include sea-level rise in Bangladesh and record drought for some regions.
Floating sea-ice thickness was studied during a 73-day trek recently made by explorer Pen Hadow in northern Canadian waters. With his colleagues, Hadow drilled 1,500 ice floe measurements. The data show sea ice in the region is even thinner than satellite images suggest. The new predictions outlined by the survey suggest most of the summer ice will melt within 10 years.
An uneven trend
Climate change “critics” are keen to point out that 2009 summer sea ice covered a larger area than in 2007. However, experts such as Dr Humfrey Melling, a research scientist with Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences, are keen to point out that:
This is not an indication that global warming is not occurring. It simply is an illustration of variability from year to year (in 2008 an El Niño effect brought a colder winter for much of Canada, creating thicker winter ice which took longer to melt). But there is still an upward trend of ice retreat.
The minimum summer ice extent in 2009 will still be much lower than the 1979 to 2000 average, even if it is a slight improvement on 2007-08.
Even though more ice is in place this summer, it is thin “first-year” ice which will melt easily in future. In many places, the ice is just half of the thickness it was 30 years ago.
Other indicators of climate change
“Havoc for coffee and tea farmers”
Research across four countries – Kenya, Mexico, Peru and Nicaragua – carried out by the state-funded German Technical Corporation and reported in the Guardian (10 October 2009) show tea and coffee growers being forced uphill to higher altitudes, at a rate of three to four metres a year on average, as temperatures rise. The newspaper suggests “Tea and coffee are on the climate change front line because they only grow in a relatively narrow temperature range”.
Cafédirect chief executive Anne MacCaig is concerned that:
Growers face instances of pestilence and disease from rises in temperature.
They also face prolonged drought and changing weather patterns.
Small producers in Mexico have seen yields halve.
All four countries may see the quantity and quality of their crops decline sharply over the coming years. However, Cafédirect is also helping farmers adapt to climate change and in Kenya has helped growers diversify into new crops such as passion fruit, while in Peru they have been working to re-forest slopes to help prevent mudslides.
Extreme risks for Bangladesh and major delta regions
Earlier this year we reported on attempts being made to help Bangladesh adapt to rising sea-levels (Adaptation - the new life line for Bangladesh?). Just six months later, the country’s government has appealed for $5bn (£3bn) in aid over the next five years to help it combat climate change. New predictions from the Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (Cegis) in Bangladesh suggest that “vast tracts in the south-west could be inundated every monsoon season” (BBC News, 07 September 2009). And 17% of the land – home to 35m people - could be permanently submerged in the coming decades leading to a climate change refugee movement on an almost unimaginable scale.
Because much of the coastal land in Bangladesh is comprised of soft sediments, this depositional environment is at risks of land subsidence, making sea-level rises even more extreme here. However, Bangladesh is not alone with this risk. Most of the world's major river deltas are reportedly sinking, increasing the flood risk further. BBC News (21 September 2009) reports that “damming and diverting rivers means that much less sediment now reaches many delta areas, while extraction of gas and groundwater also lowers the land. Rivers affected include the Colorado, Nile, Pearl, Rhone and Yangtze.”
Record drought in Arizona
“The environment here is changing at a shocking speed. The summer has been coming a week earlier and staying a week longer,” Arizonan resident Scott Harger tells the Financial Times (13 October 2009). Richard Seager, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory thinks that: “It’s tricky to say that this is caused by greenhouse gases because the natural variability in this region is colossal. But the drying is going to get worse and worse as the global climate warms up”.
The region is certainly suffering:
The US south-west has experienced drought since 1999. It is the most severe in more than a century, with the average temperature in the south-west about 1.5º above the average for 1960-79.
By some estimates, “dust bowl” drought conditions of the 1930s could become the norm by 2050.
Bark beetles are stripping the trees in Colorado, where it was once too cold for them to live; while in Arizona the warmer weather is adding a whole new generation each year to the beetle population and “skeletons of what were once trees litter the landscape” (Financial Times, 13 October 2009).
Credit Flickr user wolfgangstaudt under the Creative Commons. Text Financial Times (14 October 2009).
What’s really happening?
In August 2009, it was reported that some scientists now believe that warming will occur even more quickly than has previously been predicted by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
The UK Met Office has studied patterns of fossil fuel use and has developed new computer models that factor in findings on how carbon dioxide is absorbed by oceans and forests. At an Oxford University conference they presented their own "best estimate" of a 4C rise by 2060-70 (measured from pre-industrial times).
Elsewhere, Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK, has claimed that: “Changes are already occurring – increased desertification, changes to rainfall patterns” (Financial Times, 21 September 2009).
However, some climate change critics continue to assert that Arctic ice thinning, ocean temperature changes and the marked recent rise in hydro-meteorological hazards worldwide can still be attributed to “natural causes” rather than anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions – dispute the fact that all major world governments (whose leaders have carefully studied the science) overwhelming agree that GHG emissions are a problem that needs to be curbed.
Of the remaining climate change sceptics, some of the more vocal are found in Australia where a political party has been formed that devotes itself to “de-bunking” what it still believes to be a “myth” of climate change. You can investigate what they say for yourself on their website: www.climatesceptics.com.au
Mitigation means reducing the output of greenhouse gases (GHG) or increasing the size of greenhouse gas “sinks”. Players at a range of scales – from governments to businesses and individuals – are doing their bit to try and reduce GHG or work out ways to trap the gases. Here is a round-up of some of the latest thinking.
At a global scale, national governments are getting ready to attend the December 2009 Copenhagen conference. This will provide the framework for a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which asked for countries to commit to a target for reducing their GHG emissions.
In the lead-up to Copenhagen, the world is watching the BRICS – the large emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China – to see what stance they will be taking. Brazil, for instance, has committed to an 80% cut in deforestation by 2020 but has not yet declared whether it will accept binding targets for overall reduction of GHG emissions.
China’s position on setting GHG targets
China’s position is extremely complex. The world’s most populous nation and “workshop of the world”, it overtook the US to become the world’s biggest GHG polluter in 2007. Although Chinese leaders believe the science of climate change, their avowed priority is to continue with a massive programme of poverty alleviation – and to help a billion people escape from $10 per day and in some cases $1.25 per day poverty. This will inevitably require greater mobilisation of resources and energy use.
Thus it is clear that China’s emissions must continue to rise until significant improvements in green technology, such as carbon capture and storage, come on-line. The UK Tyndall Centre reckons this moment will come around 2030; China’s top climate change policy maker told the Financial Times (15 August 2009) that the date could be as late as 2050.
However, China has no intention in allowing GHG emissions to run away altogether and is introducing measures to reduce the rate at which its emission rise.
It has tentatively introduced (non-binding) targets for 2020 that will not lead to absolute cuts in emissions levels (as the EU has pledged to do) but will curb the growth rate significantly compared with the 2005 data.
Reforestation, low-carbon transport, improvements in energy efficiency and investments in renewable power – such as wind turbines in the Mongolian desert - are amongst the strategies that will help them meet this goal.
As a result, China’s GHG emissions in 2020 will still be 40% higher than today in real terms – but far lower than they might otherwise be. Emissions would rise twice as fast without the new measures.
This means the “carbon dioxide intensity of gross domestic production” in China will halve during the 2010s - which shows just how rapid GDP growth is expected to continue to be, at around 20% per annum (Financial Times, 14 September 2009).
China’s leaders have repeatedly stressed that developed countries still need to take greater responsibility for the problem as a result of their own early industrialisation and much longer historical record of pollution.
Important new large-scale mitigation initiatives
“Cloud ships on course to save world” According to a report in the Times (07 August 2009), the Copenhagen Consensus Centre envisages a “wind-powered fleet of 1,900 ships would criss-cross the oceans, sucking up sea water and spraying it from the top of tall funnels to create vast white clouds. These clouds would reflect a tiny proportion, between 1 and 2 per cent, of the sunlight that would otherwise warm the ocean.” Science future fact of fantasy?
Carbon capture and storage This key future technology actually seems to be edging closer to becoming a near-term reality. In September, scientists at Edinburgh University suggested the UK could lock CO2 in stable geological strata beneath the North Sea in depleted oil and gas fields – a “switching” operation that would make business sense as well as environmental sense (Financial Times, 08 September 2009). Meanwhile, the USA hopes to have technology for coal-fired power stations that capture and store CO2 emissions ready for development within a decade.
Carbon trading update Although the credit crunch hit the carbon trading system badly, carbon trading volumes nearly doubled in the first half of 2009. If American legislators introduce a cap-and-trade system covering emissions the global scheme could get an even bigger boost soon.
“Carbon tariffs” for the EU? Some European leaders want to see “carbon tariffs” – a new kind of border tax – applied to imports of goods from regions where less has been done to tackle climate change. Otherwise EU companies – who have had to make big investments in cleaning up their own act – will not be on a level playing field with cheaper and “less green” goods made outside Europe! (Financial Times, 15 October 2009).
(Also: See the teaching resources to accompany the 21Century Challenge: Engineering our climate)
New mitigation efforts by individuals and companies
The 10:10 campaign This asks individuals and organisations to cut their emissions by 10% in 2010. It was launched on 10/10 (the 10th October) and you can find out moreon the website: www.1010uk.org
Flying Carrot The world’s “greenest” sports car was unveiled in September. It features “a steering wheel constructed from carrot fibres and runs on biodiesel made from chocolate waste…. Curiously, the carrot-based steering wheel is not orange. ‘We don't know why it has turned out purple,’ said Mr Kirwan (the senior researcher). ‘There may be some beetroot in there too’” (Financial Times, 08 September 2009). The Formula 3 car, known officially as WorldFirst and informally as Flying Carrot, was developed with support from 50 companies at a total cost of just £500,000. "We want to show that green can be sexy," said Mr Kirwan.
The world consumed less in 2008: a mitigation success story?
The fall in global greenhouse gas emissions during 2009 – in line with the fall in world economic output thanks to the “credit crunch” - is expected to be the sharpest in the past 40 years (Financial Times, 06 October 2009). Global greenhouse gas output is likely to drop by about 3 per cent this year because of the recession. This strongly suggests that consumerism – and the mass production of food and goods for global markets – is the root cause of climate change.
Amongst all the political talk about climate change mitigation, “consume less” is one message that governments do not like to send – because it would adversely effect national economies and the jobs of people in productive industries. During 2008-09, many people have lost their jobs worldwide and developing countries have been hit very badly by reduced demand.
This is an interesting topic for class debate – do students think that to save the planet we should perhaps think about reducing economic growth and consumer spending? But if we do, how are we supposed to help create wealth in developing countries, meet the Millennium Development Goals and lift hundreds of millions of people out of $1.25 a day poverty?
Written by Dr Simon Oakes, Principal Examiner for Edexcel’s Global Challenges (Unit 1) paper and International Baccalaureate Chief Examiner.
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