Global problems need global solutions. The difficulty is reaching agreement for meaningful measures. The Copenhagen summit represents the world's best chance of securing such an agreement. The measures needed – a reduction of up to 85 per cent in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – are drastic. But initial carbon-lowering schemes and achieved targets (from Kyoto) encourage the view that it may be do-able, especially with the US and China apparently on board.
Turning agreed reductions into reality is complicated. The Kyoto Mechanisms – established in 1997 – provide credits for countries if emissions targets are met or exceeded. Within the EU there is the Emissions Trading System (ETS): a "cap and trade" policy whereby carbon emissions can be "offset". Levels of emissions are capped but higher emitting companies can buy emission "credits" in the form of allowances (one allowance equals one tonne of CO2) from lower emitters. Thus, high emitters are effectively "fined" for their excess while lower emitters are rewarded.
There are concerns that countries are approaching their targets thanks to the economic downturn, rather than through real change in environmental practices – suggesting a return to the bad old ways once the recession is over. Another complication is that reducing emissions remains unattractive to developing countries, which resent the reluctance to commit of major carbon-emitting nations, whose summit agreements don't necessarily make it into law. But global cooperation remains our best hope – if it can be achieved. And, if public opinion can be mobilised, the political will may soon be there.
In the Climate Change Act (2008), the UK government introduced a system of legally binding five-year "carbon budgets". The long-term national target is an 80 per cent reduction in emissions (relative to 1990 levels) by 2050. The first three carbon budgets require the UK to cut emissions by 34 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020 – equivalent to a reduction in emissions of 266.8 million tonnes. The Transition Plan for achieving this requires emissions cuts in all sectors and includes capping heavy industry, and supporting new low-carbon technologies. Can it work?
The UK's Environmental Transformation Fund (ETF) offers up to £400m for 2008/09 to 2010/11 to encourage development of low-carbon energy and energy efficiency technologies, and to speed up their commercial use in the UK. There are other incentive schemes, too – mostly under the umbrella of The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) – from Low Carbon Buildings Programmes to Bio-energy Infrastructure Schemes.
Meanwhile, the key respects in which a UK government can affect emissions levels are through transport policy (which should, but doesn't, prioritise public transport over road-building and airport expansion); and, especially, through energy policy. The direct impact on global warming of getting energy policy wrong may be slight, but the indirect impact could be huge – if a developed country such as the UK cannot create a safe, climate-friendly energy policy, it seems unrealistic to expect the developing world to do so.
Currently, the government's immediate priority is security of energy supply in the short- to medium-term, which means that coal and nuclear are the main candidates for serious investment. Opinion is divided as to how wise this is. Different calculations produce different conclusions about economic and environmental viability. The European Commission's 1995 ExternE study assessed life cycle external costs (including greenhouse gases, pollution and accident potential) for various forms of energy. For coal, the cost was estimated (in Euro cents) to be 4.1-7.3c/kWh; for gas 1.3-2.3c/kWh, for nuclear and hydroelectric 0.4 c/kWh each, and for wind 0.1-0.2 c/kWh. A separate study calculated the greenhouse contribution (in grams) as 16 g/kWh for nuclear, 356 g/kWh for gas and 891 g/kWh for coal. This seemed to justify the government's commitment to a nuclear future. In other calculations, though, nuclear power doesn't come out so well. A report commissioned by Greenpeace International, The Economics Of Nuclear Power, concluded that high prices, poor reliability and serious risks of cost over-runs, combined with the need for large subsidies, meant that nuclear power might not be economically viable in an energy-competitive situation. And the Health and Safety Executive has thrown the Government's nuclear plans into disarray by withholding its approval for the reactors involved.
The continuing development of Carbon Capture and Storage technology (see "New Technology") may increase the acceptability of coal. But for now it seems reasonable to fear that lack of large-scale public investment in energy technologies other than nuclear and coal power may undermine other emissions-reduction policies.
Global investment in sustainable energy grew from £50bn in 2006 to £74bn in 2007, and a study by Vivid Economics and New Energy Finance (commissioned by Shell Springboard) suggested that the global market for carbon-reducing technologies could ultimately reach £2,000bn a year. UK companies attracted over £1 bn of venture capital and private equity finance into renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies in 2007 – more than twice as much as any other European country. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) attracted £320m of this.
A small-scale business may have little impact in itself, but the scope for new businesses and new technologies to develop a mighty, mutually sustaining momentum should not be underestimated: look at the dot.com boom. The more we prime this pump, the better.
If global average temperatures are to be kept within 2°C of pre-industrial levels, today's energy-profligate lifestyles are unlikely to survive. Starting to adapt your habits can help create momentum for change – the aggregated choices of individual consumers create economic waves that can transform the global marketplace – and help you to prepare and adapt for changes that may before long be thrust upon you anyway.
A few modest proposals:
Be efficient: use energy-efficient light bulbs; turn down the thermostat; get a Home Energy Check; run your fridge at 3-5°C; heat hot water to 60°C; draw curtains; maintain heat in rooms; set the washing machine to 30-40°C; dry clothes naturally; recycle; switch equipment off; print less.
Insulate: improve loft insulation; insulate cavity walls; lag boiler and pipes; insulate hot water tank; install double glazing; install solar hot water.
Travel less: work remotely rather than commuting; car-share; fly less.
Eat green: cut down on meat consumption (farming animals for food leaves a huge carbon footprint); buy local produce; reduce "food miles".
Think rainforest: shop "forest-friendly" (look for the logos of the Forest Stewardship Council or the Rainforest Alliance) when buying wooden things. Deforestation accounts for 20 per cent of global carbon emissions.
Climate change cannot be solved by technological innovation alone. Yet we should not underestimate the role that recent innovations can play – if we have the courage to invest in them. Energy technologies that may be significant in future include:
"Clean Coal": the strategy known as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has made significant advances. Available technologies include: coal cleaning by "washing" to reduce ash and sulphur dioxide emissions; flue-gas desulphurisation; low-NOx burners; and sequestration of liquid carbon dioxide, once captured, into deep geological strata. In each case, the technology is there, but it won't make a significant difference without very significant investment.
Marine energy: wave and tidal stream energy is viable, and plainly sustainable, but very expensive to develop. Unlikely to make rapid progress from market forces alone.
Wind energy: viable, and has been with us for years; but expensive. Wind-farms and turbines are considered unsightly and thus controversial, discouraging further investment.
Solar power: straightforward, but unlikely to be developed on a large scale in the UK on account of our unreliable supply of sunlight.
Energy efficiency: buildings produce around 40 per cent of the UK's carbon emissions. Refurbishing existing buildings and designing new low-carbon buildings could drastically reduce national energy consumption. So could changing manufacturing processes to low-carbon technologies
Microalgae: second-generation biofuels derived from oil-rich non-food plant sources, which can "fix" CO2 from the atmosphere, offer considerable promise as alternatives to petrol and are currently under development.
Biomass heating technology: wood-burning stoves are not only carbon-neutral, but can now include micro-CHP technology that produces electricity and heat as a by-product.
Ground-source heat pumps: a large pipe full of water and anti-freeze – a ground loop – captures heat from the ground; this is then transferred to underfloor heating, radiators or hot water. Viable, and available, but expensive to install.
Fuel cells: electrochemical devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, with water and heat as by-products, are available but have yet to become viable economically.