The Philippines’s Typhoon Haiyan and its appalling death toll is a terrible example of the increasing force of extreme weather events. Will it shatter complacency about climate change, and electrify the laborious UN ministerial negotiations that are taking place in Warsaw? Do not bank on it, but do not despair either.
Hurricane Katrina came and went in 2005, and Gallup found that Americans worried about climate change jumped from 51% to 62%. Since then, recession focused people on survival, and climate worries receded. In Maslow’s hierarchy, basic needs always trump the far-off threat. With recovery and Hurricane Sandy, American public concern is rising again, and it’s now at 58%.
Our own flash floods in the summer of 2007 cost £3.2bn – part of a pattern of rising storm damage – but the impact was soon eclipsed by the Climategate email scandal casting misplaced doubt on the science, and then by the recession. Public opinion has only just begun to turn around again, with YouGov finding a rising 56% believing in man-made climate change.
Ironically, economic recovery is allowing people to raise their sights to the climate threat, and none too soon. The new report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assesses a 95% chance that climate change is man-made, a high enough risk to spur action in any other field of public policy.
If you were told that your house was virtually certain to burn down, you would think that an insurance premium costing 2% of your income in 2050 – Lord Stern’s economic estimate of the cost of sorting carbon emissions – looked like a steal.
But what about the global warming pause much beloved by sceptics? There are always variations due to solar activity and other effects, but anew study by British and Canadian scientists Kevin Cowtan and Robert G Way casts doubt on any pause. It suggests that the global temperature rise of the last 15 years has been greatly underestimated.
The reason is the data gaps in the weather station network, especially in the Arctic. If you fill these data gaps using satellite measurements, the warming trend is more than doubled, and the pause disappears. The trend of the last decade looks exactly the same as the trend since the 1950s.
The problem is simple. If we are to hold the rise in global temperatures to 2C above pre-industrial levels – the point at which global damage becomes potentially catastrophic – we have to stop increasing our carbon emissions by the end of this decade, and then reduce them. This is still possible, despite the backsliding on the Kyoto protocol begun by the Canadians.
The Japanese, never keen on Kyoto, have announced they are reducing their carbon target due to a phasing out of low-carbon nuclear in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. They have been followed by the new rightwing Australian government, dumping the Labor coalition’s flagship carbon tax. Both moves are causing understandable bad feeling among developing countries in Warsaw, but they are not yet fatal. Other countries are ramping up: the new German coalition, for instance, is likely to aim for 40% cuts in carbon emissions by 2030.
Targets are important, and so is the international agreement now promised for the Paris annual meeting in 2015, not least because it would kill the myth in so many countries that only they are tackling climate change. Why inconvenience ourselves when China is building new coal power stations by the month?
The reality is that China and the United States are continuing to take action. China’s low-carbon zones are working. Its low-carbon nuclear energy programme is enormous: it is building another 30 reactors to add to its 17. Its renewable energy target is 15% of primary energy consumption by 2020, the same as the UK’s modest contribution to the overall EU target of 20%.
The US federal government is tightening emission standards for coal generators. California is the world’s twelfth-largest economy, and is responsible for vehicle standards that are driving electrification of cars. BMW’s electric car range is a clear response to the inroads that the electric Tesla is making in this key market.
Both solar panels and onshore wind can, in the right sunny or windy conditions, be cheaper ways of generating electricity than fossil fuels. Solar panels are a quarter of their cost in 2008. Industry estimates suggests that solar will be cheaper (without subsidy) than other ways of generating electricity almost everywhere by 2020, and onshore wind even earlier.
But both solar and wind are intermittent, so a key is battery storage, which is still too expensive. With cheap batteries in the loft or the substation, home heat and light using low-carbon electricity will be attractive. It will open up a new path for developing countries, leapfrogging the need for costly grids and big power stations. In transport, batteries provide long ranges and quick charging for an upmarket luxury car like the Tesla, but the price will need to tumble to attract the mid-range Mondeo buyer.
The shape of low-carbon technology is increasingly clear. The issue is keeping up the pace of change to avert disaster. That means a global deal in December 2015 to curb emissions by 2020, however lopsided it may be. The US Senate will not find the two-thirds majority to ratify a treaty, but the Obama administration can and should make commitments backed up by domestic legislation.
A solution also means tackling the remaining obstacles to the electric economy, particularly batteries. As the EU, let’s offer big money like theLongitude prize to spur research. Let’s do joint EU-US research with real urgency, like the wartime Manhattan project to make the nuclear bomb.
We need to capture and store the carbon emitted by fossil fuels, or they must be competed out of existence. There has never been a change in the capitalist economy as potentially disruptive or which is likely to be so hard fought by vested interests. For the sake of the victims of Haiyan, and other disasters still to come, it can and must happen.
The Rt Hon Chris Huhne MP speech to the Durban COP17 Climate Conference Plenary
Department of Energy & Climate Change
Delivered on: 8 December 2011 (Original script, may differ from delivered version) Page history:Published 8 December 2011 Policy:Supporting international action on climate change Topic:Climate change Minister:The Rt Hon Chris Huhne MP
Thank you, Mr President.
One year ago, we brought these negotiations back from the brink. As the global economic crisis deepened, we turned away from low ambition.
This year, we must back high ambition. Economic uncertainty may be dominating the headlines, but emissions are rising fast. Against dark skies, we must summon the strength to commit to a brighter future.
Nowhere is this more essential than here in Africa, the continent most vulnerable to climate change. For millions of Africans, climate change is not a matter of negotiating texts, informal informals or square brackets. It is a matter – literally – of life and death.
So here in Durban, we must signal that our objective remains a legally binding global deal.
Nothing else will provide certainty for the businesses and investors who are building the next generation of homes, vehicles and power plants. Nothing else will close the emissions gap, delivering the carbon cuts we need to keep global warming within 2 degrees. Nothing else will show our determination to meet the climate challenge as fairly and as fully as possible.
That is why the UK, with our EU partners, remains a firm advocate of a global legally binding agreement within the UNFCCC. We want all countries to commit now to a comprehensive global legal framework, and to complete negotiations on it by 2015 at the latest.
The UK remains fully committed to the Kyoto Protocol. We are proud of the Protocol and the part we have played in it; it is driving the low-carbon transformation in Europe. Together with the EU, we have clearly stated that we are willing to move to a second Kyoto commitment period, maintaining ambition and environmental integrity.
But to do that in isolation makes no sense. A second commitment period covering only the EU and two or three other developed countries would control less than 15 per cent of global emissions; some 85 per cent of global emissions would remain uncontrolled.
That would not provide the certainty that investors need; it would not close the emissions gap; it would not meet the hopes of Cancun; it would not help the poor and the vulnerable.
We need a clear roadmap to a wider agreement. If that roadmap cannot be agreed here in Durban, we will not agree a second commitment period of Kyoto.
Let me be absolutely clear about this. The roadmap and the second commitment period are part of the same package, the same route towards a legally binding global deal. They cannot be separated from one another, and we will not let them be. We recognise and are encouraged by the fact that the vast majority of countries here, developed and developing, share this view.
The UK’s commitment to tackling climate change is clear. We have adopted strict domestic targets for reducing emissions: a 50 per cent cut by the mid 2020s. We are meeting our fast start finance obligations: we have allocated more than £1 billion to date.
On Tuesday, I announced our package for Africa:
£38 million for climate-resilient agriculture in Eastern and Southern Africa, helping 250,000 small-scale farmers
£27 million for the Energy and Environment Partnership in southern Africa
£15 million to support Ethiopia’s new national climate strategy
£7 million for an adaptation and resilience programme in Kenya
support through the Clean Technology Fund for low-carbon projects in Nigeria
£30 million for the Least Developed Country Fund
£10 million for the Adaptation Fund
£85 million for the Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience
By the end of 2012 we will have met in full our pledge of £1.5 billion in fast start finance. And we already have committed financial support beyond the end of the fast start period.
We are determined to make the Green Climate Fund a reality and to develop long-term sources of finance. We must make progress on technology, adaptation, forests and MRV. We must move towards a common understanding of the size of the emissions gap, and how we can close it.
These are all steps on the road to a comprehensive global agreement. And this goal is not beyond our reach. Last year’s conference in Cancun showed what we can achieve when we display flexibility and the will to compromise.
If we continue to choose co-operation over conflict, we can show that all nations are indeed united by a common ambition: to protect our planet and our people from the dangers of climate change.