What can the Stern Review tell us about our future in the face of climate change?
How will the UK government respond to climate change if global carbon emissions keep rising in line with current trends?
At the end of 2006, the publication of the Stern Review – with its talk of “green” taxes - put the media spotlight on this important issue.
Now the shocking findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have further reinforced the need for all societies to take greater responsibility in tackling global warming.
More than ever before, newspapers and broadcasters are asking: are our personal consumption habits sustainable? Can we be relied upon to act responsibly and to voluntarily change our behaviour where necessary – or are new laws and taxes needed?
Climate change: news from the frontline
The Stern Review: a summary
The Stern Review: what happens next?
Green taxes: the debate begins
How much carbon is the UK really emitting?
A Level essay advice for students
It’s worse than we thought. Newspaper headlines in 2007 agree on one thing: climate change is an even bigger problem than many people had suspected. The findings of a three-year study by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest that average temperatures could increase by as much as 6.4C by the end of the century if emissions continue to rise, with a rise of 4C most likely.
According to The Guardian (03 February 2007), an average global temperature rise of 4C “would wipe out hundreds of species, bring extreme food and water shortages in vulnerable countries and cause catastrophic floods that would displace hundreds of millions of people. Warming would be much more severe towards the poles, which could accelerate melting of the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets.”
What an increase of 4°C will mean
Loss of food production African crops slump by 15% to 35%. Global production falls 10%.
Increased flooding Sea levels rise by up to 59cm. Bangladesh and Vietnam worst hit, along with coastal cities such as London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Calcutta and Karachi. 1.8m people at risk from coastal flooding in Britain alone.
Melting ice Half the Arctic tundra at risk. Europe loses 80% of alpine glaciers. West Antarctic ice sheet and the Greenland ice sheet start to melt.
More disease Mosquitoes thrive, exposing 80 m more people to malaria in Africa; 2.5bn more exposed to dengue fever.
Loss of land species 20-50% of land species threatened with extinction.
Water shortages Fresh water availability halved in southern Africa and Mediterranean.
Hurricanes more powerful Wind strengths increasing 15-25%. Great damage to infrastructure.
Source: The Guardian 03 February 2007
The IPCC report is written by 2,000 world scientists and has been approved by every government. It says that human activity is “very likely” to be responsible for most of the observed warming in recent decades (which means the scientists are 90% certain their findings are correct).
2°C is tolerable
The IPCC panel has stressed that an outcome of between 4C and 6.4C is still not inevitable. A significant switch to “clean and resource efficient technologies” could cut expected temperature rises by half.
But even the most optimistic scenario would now see a likely increase in temperature of 2.4C over pre-industrial levels by 2100. The EU has previously defined any rise over 2C as “dangerous” as it would mean drastic impacts such as the displacement of millions of people from their homes and a fall in the productivity of farmland.
Keeping the temperature rise below 2C is essential if such impacts are to be minimised. However, the new report is suggesting that the medium-term rise in global temperatures could be anything up to three times this amount!
Why are scientists becoming more pessimistic?
The forecast for warming is higher than previous estimates because scientists have discovered that Earth's land and oceans are becoming less able to absorb carbon dioxide. Reporting on the new IPCC findings, The Independent (29 January 2007) is alarmed by evidence that the rate of climate change is increasing due to positive feedback mechanisms.
Natural systems are self-regulating due to the operation of negative feedback. This means that when an event occurs in a system to change the rate of operation for a key process, another process changes to counters the modification, returning the system to a steady state or equilibrium (for instance, if the herbivores in an ecosystem are reduced in number, then plants will grow in abundance; the remaining herbivores will thrive under such conditions and their numbers will consequently be restored). However, not all events can be naturally countered in this way. Sometimes a system change may instead become amplified, moving further away from the original equilibrium state over time. This is positive feedback.
For instance, rising levels of water vapour from evaporation over oceans intensifies the greenhouse effect (water vapour is a greenhouse gas), warming oceans further. Warmer sea water is also less able to absorb CO2, thereby functioning less effectively as a “carbon sink”. Yet again, the greenhouse effect is amplified further. The effects are thus cumulative and continuously reinforce one-another.
Other positive feedback effects include:
the increased absorption of heat in Arctic regions as ice melts to leave darker water which reflects less sunlight, due to the decreased albedo;
the release of high levels of methane (another powerful greenhouse gas) from thawing soils in permafrost regions.
As a result of such positive feedback mechanisms, the risks from global warming are more serious than previously thought.
Published in October 2006, The Stern Review (“The Economics of Climate Change”) stated that without action to reduce emissions, there is more than a 50% chance that the global temperature rise is going to exceed 5°C during the current century, which will be a very dangerous situation indeed.
But the most important conclusion of this recent government report is that there is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change if we take strong action now.
The costs of extreme weather, including floods, droughts and storms, are already rising in both poor and rich countries. If we don’t act, according to Stern, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing between 5% and 20% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) each year, now and forever.
In contrast, the costs of action – reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change – would reduce global GDP by only 1% each year for the foreseeable future.
But how can this be achieved? Do we all need to reduce our own personal “food and air miles” in order to help out?
Part of Stern’s report indicates that we do, saying that “ultimately, stabilisation – at whatever level – requires that annual emissions be brought down to more than 80% below current levels.” This seems to suggest markedly lower energy consumption per capita is needed – all in order to keep CO2 levels no higher than between 450 and 550 parts per million (ppm), which scientists regard as a critical level.
Such a turnaround requires several significant changes:
The power sector around the world will need to be at least 60% decarbonised by 2050 for atmospheric concentrations to stabilise at or below 550ppm CO2.
Deep emissions cuts will also be required in the transport sector.
To achieve all of this, we will need to see pricing of carbon, implemented through tax, trading or regulation.
We also need to all do our bit to inform, educate and persuade other people to be concerned with climate change.
According to Stern, there is only one scenario which allows “business as usual” to continue. If we are all to keep maintain our current levels of resource consumption and energy use, then the world scientific community, encouraged by government, must rapidly innovate and deploy new low-carbon technologies.
Stern believes that this may be possible as action on climate change will create significant business opportunities. New markets are already being created in low-carbon energy technologies and other low-carbon goods and services. At this stage, continued innovation is the only way that we can make sure we do not “cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries”.
Is business meeting the challenge yet?
The signs are that many firms are concerned with reducing their own impact on global climate. Motives may range from genuine concern to fears of losing the custom of environmentally-minded consumers. Notable recent announcements include:
ExxonMobil has joined the EU’s CO2 REMOVE project (looking at ways to capture and store carbon) Financial Times 01 February 2007
Tesco has promised a “green consumption revolution” starting with emission labels for food The Guardian 19 January 2007
Marks and Spencer are introducing a plane symbol on food packaging that has been air freighted The Guardian 18 January 2007
Asda are removing packaging from fruit and vegetables as part of a pilot study The Independent 01 February 2007
Norwegian Petroleum Fund (the world’s largest institutional investor) has hired an “ethical philosopher” to help it make future investments New Statesman 04 September 2006
Stern claims that action by individual countries like the UK is not enough to halt climate change. Each country is just a part of a bigger problem and international frameworks need to be built that allow countries to work together.
Recently, he took his message to the World Economic Forum in Geneva (The Guardian, 27 January 2007). However, each of his suggestions for international action are clearly open to debate in terms of possible future effectiveness:
Technology cooperation Stern recommends that we act to boost the effectiveness of investments in innovation around the world, suggesting that “globally, support for energy R&D should at least double, and support for the deployment of new low-carbon technologies should increase up to five-fold.” (Will new technology really be shared without profit? For instance, this has not always happened in the past with vital medical research and anti-retroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS remain too expensive for many people in poor countries to use.)
Action to reduce deforestation The loss of natural forests around the world contributes more to global emissions each year than the transport sector. Curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way to reduce emissions. (A likely obstacle will be that many LEDCs such as Brazil still want to use their timber to boost export earnings or need to use the land beneath for cropping.)
Adaptation Some of the poorest countries are most vulnerable to climate change e.g. low-lying Bangladesh. Stern says “it is essential that climate change be fully integrated into development policy, and that rich countries honour their pledges to increase support through overseas development assistance.” (However, the world’s richest countries still have a long way to go in honouring their existing “Millennial Goals” to reduce global poverty by 2015)
Emissions trading Building on the existing European scheme, more countries need to sign up to this programme, where high-polluters buy “credits” from low-polluters. Stern thinks “strong targets in rich countries could drive flows amounting to tens of billions of dollars each year to support the transition to low-carbon development paths.” (However, if almost the whole world is now industrialised or industrialising, critics may ask: where is the spare capacity?)
Green taxes Stern has called for more national governments to introduce higher “green taxes” to combat environmental damage. (However, 1.8 million people have already signed a petition against UK government plans to introduce new road taxes: will green taxes be resisted?)
What the Stern Review makes absolutely clear is that the world cannot continue to support a growing number of fossil fuel energy consumers unless action is taken to start reducing ecological footprints.
The UK government realises this and taxes on polluting activity are likely to be introduced in the UK very soon. Negative polluting activities – such as the generation of excess landfill wastes and excessive car mileage, especially in cities – look set to be targeted.
Some measures have already been introduced at the local level. London now has a congestion charge for cars entering the inner city (money is re-invested in improving the bus network, which carries 2 million passengers daily).
Although the primary goal is a restructuring of the London transport system to reduce congestion, the initiative also reduces carbon emissions (The Guardian 25 January 2006). Recently, the charge has increased to £8 per vehicle per day and the zone has been expanded to include Kensington and Chelsea. We can expect to see more initiatives like this in other cities in the not too distant future.
Will we have more green taxes?
The Guardian (07 December 2006) reported that the government’s Chancellor, Gordon Brown, will be introducing green taxes as part of his 2007 Budget. A £1 billion package of green taxes was included in his pre-budget report, including:
the doubling of air passenger duty from £5 to £10 per passenger
raising duty on petrol by 1.25%
However, critics immediately pointed out the total tax increase amounted to less than 0.1% of GDP - compared with the 1% of GDP that the Stern Report said would be necessary to curb carbon emissions.
Will we have national “road pricing”?
The UK government is currently exploring the idea of a national road-pricing scheme to be rolled out some time in the next five-to-ten years.
Under such a scheme, motorists would be charged a fee for driving their cars on a mile-by-mile basis. Charges would vary according to the sort of road being driven on and the time of day and it is unlikely that people in rural areas – where a car can be a necessity – would pay as much as commuters using London’s M25 at rush hour.
However, motorists are already up in arms. According to Reuters, initial estimates suggest a tracking scheme - with prices depending on location and the time of day - could cost drivers up to 1.34 pounds a mile in the busiest areas at rush hour.
On February 21, Prime Minister Tony Blair was forced to defend the government’s proposals, writing an email to almost 1.8 million petitioners who have signed on on-line petition that opposes the plans.
1,792,624 people (around 3% of the UK’s population) signed an experimental “e-petition”, hosted on the 10 Downing Street Web site, objecting to government plans (and further alleging that the government's real aim is simply to raise more tax that might not be used to improve transport and help the environment).
Previously, the UK government has claimed responsibility for 2% of global carbon emissions. However, a new report by Christian Aid claims the figure is actually 15% if the emissions of UK industries operating overseas are included.
Given that only 1% of the world’s population lives in the UK, the official government figure of 2% is already disproportionately high. It represents 552m tonnes of CO2 annually, making the UK the world’s seventh-largest polluter and responsible for more emissions than the 112 least polluting nations put together.
However, the real figure is more likely to be billions of tonnes. The new findings come as a result of the Carbon Disclosure Project, which asked companies to reveal their total emissions including overseas facilities and transport.
Why is the official figure an under-estimate?
Only 2.13 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions emanate from the UK’s domestic economy (i.e. are emitted by homes, transport and businesses situated within the borders of the UK). However, the process of globalisation has ensured that massive additional amounts of CO2 are emitted around the world on the UK’s behalf, for instance in China and India.
As the report puts it, “once in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases do not respect national boundaries. Neither does investment; UK-based and registered companies whose money is raised in the UK do their business around the world and have concomitant atmospheric impact.
“Together, five of the largest FTSE 100 oil, gas and mining companies (Shell, BP, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata) estimate that they account for a total of 2,219 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2 and other greenhouse gases), which is more than nine per cent of total global emissions.
“A figure close to 3.8 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent emerges (for the UK). This is more than 15 per cent of total global emissions.”
Students of economic geography may already know that it is notoriously difficult to measure national wealth on account of the global operations of a nation’s industries. Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product are measures of wealth that differ in ways that reflect this complex issue. Similarly, it appears that measuring a nation’s carbon footprint is beset with similar difficulties.
From a geographer’s perspective, it might seem naïve for a nation to not claim some responsibility for emissions by its industries’ overseas branch-plant operations. These are, after all, investments that are directly contributing to national economic well-being.
However, The Metro newspaper (19 February 2007) reported that the UK Government is very happy for now to “stick to rules that say emissions are counted against the country where they are produced.”
Critically examine the concept of sustainable development.
Sustainable development is an area of the curriculum where students can develop a capacity for critical thinking. Much of the rhetoric of climate change and sustainability suggests that we can easily find a compromise solution that reconciles the drive for economic growth with the need to conserve energy and resources. Accordingly, attempts to “green” businesses are often hailed as “sustainable development” initiatives because they reduce the overall environmental impact.
However, most policies fail to make anything like the level of adjustment needed to reduce the UK’s ecological footprint to a notional level of just 1.8 hectares per capita – the amount of land we would claim to support ourselves if we were practicing inter-generational equity (which means sharing our resources equally with other people on the planet).
For instance, the UK has introduced many recycling schemes that claim to be “sustainable” initiatives – and yet the amount of total waste we generate is still increasing by 3% per annum. In mathematical terms, this means there is not a constant base to the equation – if our total waste is increasing at the same time as the proportion we recycle is increasing, we cannot be sure that we are actually decreasing our overall footprint!
Similarly, using low energy bulbs does not necessarily result in lower energy expenditure if a greater number of ceiling lights are installed into new homes compared with older ones – as often tends to be the case nowadays.
A-level students should therefore aim to look critically at claims of “sustainable” practice which may, in fact, be doing little more than slightly reducing the speed at which negative change occurs. The uncomfortable truth may well be the time has come for us to actually refuse, rather than simply recycle (for instance, consumers could refuse to buy products that have been excessively packaged or have been transported over very long distances).
Critically discuss (a) ways of defining development and (b) the problems that arise when taking measurements.
Increasingly, environmental indicators might be expected to be discussed by students of development attempting to define, rank and quantify levels of national development. Currently, geographers often lean heavily on the use of the Human Development Index (HDI) and Gross Domestic Project (GDP) for such exercises. However, a wide range of indicators for environmental responsibility could also be incorporated into the discussion, including:
overall ecological footprint
annual CO2 emissions
annual CO2e emissions (this means “CO2 equivalent” – a measure that has been adjusted to include other greenhouse gases)
The usual challenges apply: the figures need to be converted into per capita measures, for the sake of comparing like-with-like. They are also controversial (should a nation’s carbon footprint include the emissions of its industries’ overseas operations? - currently, government figures do not). Can the figures be accurately measured in any case?
However, the results of any ranking exercise that uses such diverse indicators are sure to be interesting. Just who are the biggest polluters? And are they the same nations that score highly in other respects, such as GDP and HDI?
IPCC report findings
Stern Report summary
EU action against climate change - through emissions trading
Green policies will hurt economy, says BA The Guardian 14 November 2006
Now will the world act? - IPCC report covered by The Guardian 27 January 2007
BBC facts about climate change
Gordon’s green budget The Guardian 07 December 2006
Coming Clean: Revealing the UK’s true carbon footprint - Christian Aid report on the UK’s true carbon footprint
Written by Dr Simon Oakes, a Principal Examiner for Edexcel and Sixth Form teacher at Bancroft’s School.
By placing a booking, you are permitting us to store and use your (and any other attendees) details in order to fulfil the booking.
We will not use your details for marketing purposes without your explicit consent.
You must be a member holding a valid Society membership to view the content you are trying to access. Please login to continue.
Join us today, Society membership is open to anyone with a passion for geography
Cookies on the RGS website