Product has been added to the basket

Stability is not an Option

David A. L. Jenkins, Chartwood Resources Ltd

Current concerns are focused on the projected magnitude and the rate of warming during the 21st century, which is ascribed to the increase in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere consequent on mankind’s combustion of carbon based fuels. There is a high degree of uncertainty in these projections, related to the expectations for economic growth and the nature of the climatic feedback mechanisms, which augment the warming effect of increased CO2 concentration levels. Nevertheless the view of the majority of climate scientists is that mankind could be interfering with the Earth’s climate in a potentially highly damaging way and that we would be wise to take steps to drastically reduce our emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The current Hadley Centre CM3 coupled general circulation model now gives an excellent match to the changes in average global temperature during the 20th Century. The temperature excursion during the past 25 years is significant and certainly higher than anything recorded during the millennium. The combination of this match and this temperature excursion leads to the conclusion that we now have a discernible greenhouse gas signature driving the global temperature.

Global averages though are useful only as a statistical summation. Other than rising sea level, related to thermal expansion of the oceans, what matters are the variations on regional and local scales, as these are what will impact population groups and ecosystems. The UK has detailed temperature records going back 350 years, in addition to good historical records for the past 1000 years. It is instructive therefore to see what has been happening during the recent past, particularly as we are now well into the period of climatic change postulated to be related to greenhouse gases. The UK data from the Central England temperature record show that the average annual temperature has risen 2oC over the past 100 years, twice the global average. The rate of increase during the past 25 years has been at a rate close to 4oC per 100 years, almost as fast as that observed during the 40 year recovery from the very cold period at the end of the 17th Century.

So the interesting question is what have we been observing and has there been a problem? The main change seems to have been that the winters have been getting milder and the autumns occasionally wetter. The summers have remained variable, but generally quite cool. Clearly there are not yet any issues. Whether there will be any in the forthcoming years is an open question. However from the viewpoint of the public it is not at all clear why increasing temperature should be a problem at all. Most of us would like the weather to be warmer, both in the winter and the summer and even a 5oC increase does not of itself sound difficult to manage. It would still leave us cooler than the southern Mediterranean. It is worth remembering though that a relatively small change in the annual average temperature can mask wide seasonal changes. The average annual temperature for the 1690s was only 3oC colder than the 1990s, but the winters and summers were very much colder than today, with widespread crop failure. So average annual temperature increases this century of similar magnitude could mask much more significant seasonal changes. The modelled changes in UK precipitation are quite substantial, but clearly manageable with the appropriate level of investment in water capture, transportation and storage. Sea level will rise gradually, but within manageable limits.

I think that in practise it is unrealistic to presume that public concern for the impact of climate change is more than superficial. They may express a vague unease, but their observation of the variability of seasonal weather, which is what we all experience, together with a wish for warmer conditions than we have been experiencing, mean that persuading people that we all should reduce our GHG emissions, because it is leading to dangerous changes in the global climate, will be difficult.

This situation raises an interesting dilemma both for business and for government. During the 1990s concerns about global warming continued to increase and were well documented in the reports of the IPCC. For most of this decade the fossil fuel industry adopted a relatively defensive stance, particularly when the view expressed by the environmental movement was that in order to save the planet we had to abandon the use of fossil fuels as a source of energy. In reality the Industry could and should have been proactive in explaining that there were many options for low emission energy, including options based on fossil fuels. It is quite incorrect to assume that the only “safe” sources are renewable. What is required is absolute clarity on the overall objective and then appropriate market based incentives to enable the objective to be achieved in the most economically efficient manner. Neither of these per-requisites is yet in place, but there are encouraging signs of changes in approach, particularly in the USA.

I concur with Frank Sprow of ExxonMobil who mentioned during the debate that he felt Kyoto was a flawed concept, but this was due at least in part to business’s failure to propose solutions to the perceived problem of increasing emissions. A collective agreement to targets that really would make a difference would be much more compelling. CO2 levels not to exceed 550ppm was an example mentioned from the floor.

The advantage of fossil fuels is that they are cheap, efficient and convenient to use. Low energy costs are a significant contributor to economic development. Low emission energy today is certainly more expensive, but all experience shows costs would fall rapidly and substantially given a major focus on the technology.

Sequestration is currently the only feasible route to large scale low emission energy supply from fossil fuels. This potential solution has now been embraced by the US administration and R&D is being promoted actively. It has also been adopted by some within the fossil fuel industry; both BP and ExxonMobil are sponsoring research programmes and the concept has received cautious support in the recent UK energy white paper. “Putting the carbon back” into deep saline formations is technically quite feasible and can be done securely and safely. Current technology is relatively costly and energy intensive, but there is immense scope for improvement.

The glaring gap in policy is any serious attempt to change consumer behaviour. Consumers change only when they want to or it is made demonstrably worth their while. To date there is no political will to effect any such change. In theory it could be very easy to do. In practise it is probably politically impossible. Incentivising conservation requires a completely different approach to that which penalises consumption. At present a focus on the latter automatically leads to revenue raising instruments. An objective function focussed on reducing GHG emissions requires relinquishing a mind set that views energy consumption as a source of tax revenue. Consumers would be set targets for reduction and tax penalties would arise only if the target was exceeded. Rebates would be available for reductions greater than the target. There is no sign that governments wish to adopt this approach. Were they to do so dramatic reductions in emissions could be achieved rapidly. Without it they won’t happen.