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The road to and from Kyoto

Lecture to the South East Climate Change Partnership Annual Forum, the Langstone Hotel, Hayling Island, Hampshire. 7 July 2005.

Today issues of climate change are on the global agenda as never before. There should be a lively debate on this subject at the G8 meeting at Gleneagles at this very moment. In this talk, I do not intend to go over the basic science which is as well known to you as to me, but to focus on the politics and, later on, on the likely impacts here and elsewhere.

Looking back over climate change issues, perhaps the transition from the world of science into the world of politics and economics took place at another meeting of the G countries, then 7 not 8, at Downing Street in 1984. For some of them it seemed at the time a little bizarre. Then came the attention to climate in the report of the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. The following year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was set up, and produced its first Assessment in 1990. In the meantime the issues were dramatized in Margaret Thatcher's speech to the Royal Society in 1988, followed by another to the UN General Assembly in 1989. In the same spirit she addressed the second World Climate Conference in 1990.

By that time climate change was firmly on the world's political and economic as well as scientific agenda. One of the products of the Rio Summit Conference on Environment and Development of 1992 was the Framework Convention on Climate Change. This was followed by the Second Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel in 1995, the signature of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and eleven subsequent meetings of the Parties to it. The Third Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel was published at the end of 2001. The next Assessment will be in 2007: it promises to be much clearer than before, and to reduce many of the uncertainties.

In fact the prospects are already a lot clearer. Every week, almost every day, seems to bring fresh evidence both about change itself and then consequences of inaction. Let me go quickly through some of the most recent manifestations. In November last year the British and German governments met and later published a declaration on the subject. I quote two eloquent passages from it.

"The conference agreed that the evidence that human activity was causing climate change, most notably through emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and through deforestation, had been established beyond reasonable doubt. It noted that the atmospheric concentration of the most important greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, had reached a level not seen on Earth for at least 740,000 years, and that levels were likely to continue to rise during this century."

"The conference reviewed the effects already being felt throughout the world. It recognized that, if unabated, and if we did not adapt appropriately, future climate change could have a devastating impact on human society and the natural environment. The costs of inaction, felt mostly in the developing world, far exceeded the costs of action. The effects of climate change were moving to the centre of social and economic worldwide activity."

These thoughts were the inspiration for what followed. Here are the main events this year so far:

Now I turn to the title of my talk today "The Road to and from Kyoto" which was chosen some time ago, and you may regard as somewhat overtaken. But Kyoto is a critical part of the events which are now unfolding. The Protocol was the first practical international instrument designed to mitigate - not to avert - the mounting dangers represented by climate change. It was negotiated with immense difficulty in December 1997, and incorporated many US ideas, notably from the experience gained in coping with sulphur emissions. Vice President Gore played a major role throughout, and accepted it for the United States. Some 84 countries signed at the same time, and 38 others joined later.

A key provision was that the Protocol would come into effect only when countries which accounted for at least 55 percent of current human emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere had ratified it. Since then, global warming is predicted to be faster than expected.

The European Union countries, including our own, finally ratified the Protocol in New York on 31 May 2002. The European Union now has an overall emissions target of 8 percent below 1990 levels for the period between 2008 and 2012. At the time the British government decided it could do still better and it adopted a legally binding target of 12.5 percent. Globally, even if the Kyoto commitments were met (itself highly doubtful), greenhouse gas emissions would still be some 30 percent up on 1990 by 2010. Thus it could never have been more than a first step. The last crucial ratification was by Russia in 2004. The Protocol eventually came into effect on 16 February this year.

I must now say a word or two about the position of the United States. Vice President Gore may have accepted the Protocol, but neither President Clinton nor President Bush Jr. made any serious effort to submit the Protocol to the US Senate. Thus the United States with less than 5 percent of the world's population but over 20 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions, is a major villain of the piece. Its unwillingness to accept binding treaty obligations is not new. With American society still based on cheap energy, and vested interests in the present carbon economy being so close to the current US Administration, it is no surprise that President Bush still refuses to ratify the Protocol.

Happily for the rest of the world there is a change of heart starting to take place in the United States. Many states are choosing to ignore the federal Administration. Over 150 local governments, representing more than 50 million citizens and over 20 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions have undertaken to reduce emissions by 7 percent by 2012. The nine north east states, including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, are working toward creating a regional greenhouse gas market. Meanwhile, California has enacted legislation to limit carbon dioxide from cars and sports utility vehicles.

These state initiatives are important not only because they can help pave the way for federal action but also because US states are themselves large emitters of greenhouse gases. California's emissions exceed those of Brazil. Ohio's emissions exceed those of Turkey and Taiwan, and emissions in Illinois exceed those from the Netherlands. In addition some major US companies, including GE, Dupont, Ford, Cinergy and others, are taking action to reduce their emissions and to put environment as well as social and economic factors at the centre of their policies. Even the so called religious right seems to be thinking again, and last month the US Senate called for a comprehensive national programme of action on greenhouse gas emissions.

As for Europe, under the European emissions trading scheme which began on 1 January 2005, member governments are required to set an emission cap for all installations covered by the scheme which include: the electricity generating industry; oil refineries; the iron and steel industry; the minerals industry; and paper, pulp and board manufacturing. So far aviation and bunker fuel are missing.

A question mark hangs over how much the Kyoto Protocol will affect the British economy. Will industry accelerate its social, environment and ethical issues in time for the government to achieve its targets? Much will depend upon EU and national legislation and intelligent implementation of tradable emissions permits. The City is thinking hard about the issues of corporate governance and responsible investment. This will, in time, begin to turn the economy away from the carbon driven market.

Here the British Government seems to have been less than resolute. In February this year Margaret Beckett challenged Brussels by announcing a new plan for carbon allowances that would have been more generous to intensive energy users and power generators, to cushion industry from changes that the Government proposed to its intended carbon dioxide cap from 736m tonnes over the next three years to 756m tonnes. The Commission has insisted that Britain should go back to its first tougher plan for dealing with greenhouse gases.

The challenge continues in the courts today, and sits strangely with the Prime Minister's continuing efforts to show leadership on climate change both within the G8 and within the European Union whose Presidency Britain assumed last week on 1 July. The same strangeness was evident on Tuesday when the Chancellor of the Exchequer decided to postpone an increase in fuel duties because of the rise in oil prices.

Most forward thinking about climate change and its consequences is on the basis that other factors in the world environment will remain relatively stable. But this is far from the case. Without wishing to enter into a doomsday survey of the world's ills, and in particular those of modern society, let me mention the main issues as I see them. They are all closely connected. Stated in summary form there are six main problems:

All these whether alone or together constitute threats to the resilience of societies. In his new book Collapse, Jared Diamond has undertaken some fascinating case studies on why in the past some societies have collapsed and others have succeeded. He underlines that there is no determinism or inevitability. To the pressures I have mentioned, he adds conflicts between nations, tribes and communities; trade issues and interdependencies; ability to recognize problems, keeping the long-term in view, and take the necessary action in time.

Virtually none of these problems would have arisen if the human population had stayed where it was at less than a million at the end of the last ice age. At the time of Thomas Malthus, who first saw the relationship between population and resources at the end of the 18th century, the population stood at around 1 billion. By the time I was born in 1930 it had risen to 2 billion. It is now over 6 billion, and will probably rise to between 7 and 9 billion before the end of the 21st century.

The effects are widespread. Crowding, particularly in and around cities, facilitates the spread of disease, and in some cases helps create it. Malnutrition makes things worse as does increased use of pollutants for heating and cooking. As the World Health Organization has pointed out, demographic pressure has led to the revival and spread of many old diseases as well as such new ones as HIV/AIDS. Human vulnerability is now increased by inability to move elsewhere in response to environmental change and pressure on resources. A particular threat in the near future is a rise in the number of environmental refugees, each carrying susceptibility to specific pathological conditions.

Then there is deterioration of land quality, accumulation of wastes, and water issues. We have been damaging the soils which sustain all terrestrial creatures. Reducing the number of people suffering from hunger by half is a Millennium Development Goal. Globally some progress has been made towards meeting it, but in much of sub-Saharan Africa and west Asia the trends are in the wrong direction.

Most countries still lack coherent policies on reduction and disposal of wastes. Distinguishing the insidious of the widening number of chemicals to which we are subject is very difficult, and the subject of current debate within Europe over a draft Chemicals Directive. But the impacts of Polychlorinated Biphenyls or PCBs, and Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPs, on sensitive Arctic creatures such as polar bears - which are suffering increasingly from a hermaphrodite mutation - and gulls, illustrate the unexpected effect chemicals can have on organisms far from the pollutants' original source.

Pollution of salt and fresh water is a particular problem. Oceanic pollution is worst offshore. In the oceans as a whole, fish stocks are a useful test. Recent estimates by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization indicate that at least 60 percent of world fisheries are fully exploited or over-fished. Using meat as an alternative source of protein only puts more pressure on stretched agricultural resources. For instance, 1kg of beef requires grain 10kg of grain for its production.

Meanwhile demand for fresh water has doubled every 21 years. Over the next two decades water demand by humans seems likely to increase by 40 percent while 17 percent more water will be needed to grow food for growing populations particularly in poor countries. Water shortages are not a new phenomenon and are predicted to get worse. Yet the amount of fresh water available remains the same as it was at the time of the Roman empire when the human population was 450 million. The number of people who will face severe water problems could be almost three billion by 2050.

Last in my description of the big picture is our continuing destruction of other living species at rates comparable to those caused by extraterrestrial impacts in the long past. Current rates of extinction are many times what they would be under natural conditions.

I am reluctant to paint a picture of unqualified gloom, but almost all environmental problems are getting worse. Even if they are now better recognized, few are being acted upon. Yet many of the solutions to the problems I have raised are well known, and especially to all of you.

If I have any conclusions to suggest to you, it is to stress the need to think differently, and then to behave differently. We all suffer from the disease of what has been called conceptual sclerosis. Change is rarely linear. There are sudden breaks, unforeseen thresholds, uncomfortable shocks. Where the breaks and thresholds are, what uncomfortable shocks are coming constitute at least part of the subject of your conference today.

I shall now be brave, and try to say something about climatic prospects for the South East. You will have seen, and probably contributed to, the various scenarios worked out for this Annual Forum. Those for the 2080s are alarming to say the least; but those for the 2020s are almost as worrying. A trend towards a hotter and dryer climate, with more extreme events, coupled with sea level rise, would change the whole economy of the region. Let me list the more obvious impacts on the way:

I have been particularly interested in the effects on the conurbations of the region as a member of the Government's Urban Task Force. We are now thinking again about the recommendations we produced in 1999, not least because of planning for the Thames Gateway project, and the gathering environmental implications for the character and good health of all British cities (at present urban areas in England account for 90 percent of its population, with 91 percent of its economic output and 89 percent of its jobs). I commend the work already done in Woking, with possible application in London. There is nothing like a good example to remove the sense of helplessness that many feel about the complexity and interactive quality of the problems we face. For the moment I say only: watch this space.

So change is essential. How can it come about? History shows that it normally takes place for three reasons. First through leadership from above from institutions or individuals; secondly through public pressure from below; and thirdly - however regrettably - through some useful catastrophes to jerk us out of our inertia. At present we can see all these factors at work at the G8 meeting in Gleneagles. Whatever the outcome, I fear most people will be disappointed by it.

Let me end with a reference to a recent statement by the Astronomer Royal, shortly to be President of the Royal Society. He rated the chances of our civilization surviving until the end of this century as no more than 50 percent. The stakes are indeed high but the odds should lengthen as public understanding increases. All over the world people have to change their ways and remodel their thinking. Otherwise nature will do what she has done to over 99 percent of species that have ever lived, and do the job for us.


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