IoS 2060: Tsunami horror hits Britain

This is the sort of headline we will all be reading in reality if nothing is done to prevent climate change. Yesterday 20,000 people marched in London to express their concern. Tomorrow world leaders meet in Nairobi to set new targets for cutting pollution. Here, environment editor Geoffrey Lean examines why they must go further than ever before. And we print the stories you'll hope never to read again
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The Independent Online

International attempts to cut the pollution that causes global warming have gone into reverse just as evidence mounts that it is putting the planet in grave danger, a startling official report will reveal.

The findings by the United Nations - which will be presented to the world's governments tomorrow at the start of crucial negotiations about whether to tackle climate change seriously - show that after reducing emissions during the 1990s, the world's richest countries have in fact increased them since the start of the Millennium.

The alarming revelation adds impetus to the conclusion of last week's Stern report that "strong and urgent collective action" is needed if worldwide disaster is to be avoided. The 600-page report by Sir Nicholas Stern, head of the Government Economic Service and a former chief economist of the World Bank, predicted that without substantial and rapid cuts in pollution, global warming will "take humans into unknown territory" and "transform the physical geography of the world".

Our planet could eventually be visited by catastrophes such as widespread drought, the failure of the monsoon rains, the fiery death of the Amazon rainforest, the extinction of polar bears as the Arctic ice cap melts, and the flooding of many cities, including London. But tomorrow yet another report, this one by the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Government's favourite think-tank, will conclude that Sir Nicholas has not gone nearly far enough and that an even greater "Herculean" effort will be needed if we are "to have a high chance of avoiding dangerous climate change".

All three reports will greatly increase the pressure on the international negotiations that open in Nairobi tomorrow, a year late, over what will replace the present targets for cutting pollution. These were set under the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012.

Sir Nicholas will address delegates from the 189 countries that have ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the start of an intensive two-month tour to put across the message of his report, taking in South Africa, Japan, China, India and Germany before culminating at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

But despite his call for immediate action, the Nairobi talks will not produce a breakthrough; the best that is hoped for is that they will make progress towards an agreement in two or three years' time.

Yesterday, 20,000 protesters, ranging from the Women's Institute to Friends of the Earth, and the Ramblers' Association to members of the rock band Razorlight, rallied outside the US embassy in London against the environmental policies of the Bush administration. They then marched to Trafalgar Square in the biggest demonstration on climate change yet held in the UK.

These demonstrators, and others around the globe, will be angered by the conclusions of the UN report, compiled by the secretariat of the UNFCCC, which show that the total amount of greenhouse gases - including methane, nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants as well as carbon dioxide - emitted by the world's industrialised countries has risen by 2.4 per cent since the turn of the Millennium. This rise has partially reversed a cut of 5.6 per cent between 1990 and 2000, which largely took place even before the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997.

The report adds that while 23 countries - more than half of the world's developed nations - reduced emissions during the 1990s, only seven have managed to do so since. Britain is one of them, but only just: it has squeaked a 1 per cent reduction since 2000, compared with a drop of 13.4 per cent in the previous decade.

Yvo de Boer, the UNFCCC's executive secretary, calls the findings " worrying", adding that: "This means that industrialised countries will need to intensify their efforts to implement strong policies which reduce greenhouse gas emissions." And all the more so because the report shows that even the reduction in the 1990s was overwhelmingly due to the economic collapse of the former Soviet bloc rather than deliberate anti-pollution measures in the West. During the decade, these countries' emissions plunged by 39.3 per cent, while those of other industrialised nations rose by 8.8 per cent. And even in the former Soviet bloc, pollution has risen by 4.1 per cent since 2000.

The report says that the industrialised countries can still meet the 5.2 per cent reduction target set under the Kyoto Protocol for 2012. But the increasing pollution since 2000 makes it clear that a radical change of tack will be necessary.

What is more, as the Stern report shows, the cuts under the protocol do not go nearly far enough. Its recommendations are based on stabilising greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere at the equivalent of between 450 and 550 parts per million of carbon dioxide. To achieve this, emissions would have to be cut by 25 per cent worldwide from 1990 levels and by 60 per cent in developed countries by 2050.

But tomorrow's report by the IPPR concludes that even Stern's targets would fail to avoid disaster, and that worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide would need to "fall to about 70-80 per cent below 1990 levels by the middle of the century, matched by similarly stringent reductions in the other greenhouse gases".

In the report's forward, Simon Retallack, head of the IPPR's Climate Change Team, writes: "Given that global emissions are currently heading in the opposite direction, the level of effort needed is Herculean. For countries such as the UK it could essentially mean preparing to build a zero-carbon economy by 2050."

The technology already exists to achieve this, he adds, but governments must urgently adopt policies and provide resources to make it happen. "We have less than 10 years. What we do now will be of critical importance."

The snail's-pace negotiations in Nairobi could scarcely provide more of a contrast. The most optimistic possibility is that slow but steady progress will continue to be made towards adopting new targets by 2008 (or perhaps 2009 to give a chance for a more sympathetic US president) so that they can be ratified worldwide by 2012.

However, it is something of a breakthrough that the negotiations are happening at all. Almost a year ago, at the last meeting of the parties to the treaty in Montreal, the US tried to stop any negotiations on future targets. It was only when it was isolated and widely ridiculed that it gave way, eventually agreeing that talks should begin, if a year late. Everyone expects it to resume its obstructive tactics in Nairobi; it is sending no fewer than 27 negotiators to the meetings to try to disrupt things.

China and India are reluctant to agree to targets while the US refuses to do so. Japan is also wary. It will be left to Europe - and Britain in particular, led in the negotiations by Secretary of State for the Environment, David Miliband, facing his first big international test - to make the running. Mr Miliband will be armed with the Stern report, which demolishes the last argument against taking action - that, as President Bush puts it, pollution controls would "wreck" economies.

Instead, Sir Nicholas has shown that it is doing nothing that would ruin the world, since this would provoke the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression.

Taking effective action would cost only around 1 per cent of world output, and could be economically beneficial. But as he points out, tough measures have to be taken within the next few years; delay would be "costly and dangerous", making targets much more expensive and difficult to achieve.

By the same token, it would have been much cheaper and easier to prevent climatic disaster if the world had started taking serious action in 1992, when the framework treaty was first agreed.

As Mr Miliband put it last week: "We'll regret the passing of those years."

2030: RIP The Arctic polar bear breathes its last

World turned on its head as last wild polar bear runs out of ice

The camera crews were all there, shirt-sleeved in the Arctic sun. CNN, the BBC, Al-Jazeera, New China News, had come to the Canadian North to record the final hours of the world's last polar bear left in the wild. It was the first extinction to be witnessed by billions in real time.

She was christened Sheba by the journalists who have stalked her for months since biologists identified her as the last of the bears, hunting the dwindling supply of seals from the last ice floes. Today, Sheba finally ran out of ice. Perhaps herself aware this was the end, she stepped from the last shard as it slowly melted under her, and swam beneath the midnight sun to her doom.

There are dozens of polar bears still in zoos. But there is nowhere to release them in the wild, after the rapid disappearance of the Arctic ice.

Efforts at resettlement in the green bush of the former Canadian tundra have all failed. In any case, as the melting Greenland ice-sheet has flooded coastal areas, there is no spare land for them to settle on.

The Arctic has changed faster as a result of climate change than anywhere else on the planet. This was because as more ice melted each summer, the dark, exposed ocean absorbed more heat, triggering ever faster melting.

Diane Walkington, head of species for WWF-UK, said: "The polar bear has been stolen from future generations by nothing less than the selfishness of man."

2040: Burned to death: How man reduced the mighty Amazon to ashes

Life-giving rainforests now a wasteland

The Amazon rainforest is dead. The fires that have raged for weeks in what was once the largest rainforest on Earth have all but consumed its last remnants. It is now extinct, and with it the stability it brought to the planet's climate.

This cataclysm - about which campaigners have been warning for many decades - followed another season of burning in its final refuge, in the former flooded forests where the remnants of the Rio Negro and Amazon meet.

The huge forest fires have made travel to the region almost impossible. But satellite images show the great green expanses have turned almost entirely to red desert in the past five years.

At the start of the century, scientists from the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Exeter said the forest was in danger from rising temperatures and declining rainfall.

"In the rainforests, the rains make the forests but the forests make the rain, by providing moisture for new rain clouds to form," said Noah Arkwright from the Hadley Centre. "And once they start to disappear, the process feeds on itself until lush jungle is replaced by desert. Today there are no trees; and there is no rain."

As the forests have died, so too has the river. Once containing a fifth of all the water in all the world's rivers, the Amazon is now a fitful dribble, not much bigger than the Thames.

What nobody quite realised was just how swiftly the rainforest would die. Conservation measures over 50 years protected it from the chainsaw and the plough. But it has succumbed to changing climate in less than a decade.

John Hemming, an expert on the Amazon and former director of the Royal Geographical Society, said: "The Amazon rainforest was home to half the world's species and these may well have included cures for diseases such as cancer about which we will never know. I am afraid man's greed has become his downfall."

2050: The last drops of rain fall to earth

World hunt for food as India faces starvation after monsoon fails and harvests are doomed

A worldwide search for spare food has been mounted this weekend in the aftermath of the most complete failure of the Indian monsoon ever witnessed. Two billion people on the Indian subcontinent could soon be going hungry because there is no rain to water their crops.

India was already parched by decades of warming, with temperatures in Celsius regularly rising into the 50s. Now the collapse of the monsoon for the second year running is the final straw for India, according to its Prime Minister.

Last night his office issued this statement:

"Millions have already died from the heat. But without the monsoon rains, none of our people can survive in the villages; and the markets in the cities will soon be empty. The world must bring them food, or they will migrate to other lands."

India's population has soared from one billion to 1.4 billion in the past 40 years, eclipsing even China. And with megacities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai now home to more than 30 million people, they are becoming cauldrons of anger and disease, as well as heat.

Kirsten Zickfeld, who warned of the danger of greenhouse gas emissions switching off the monsoon as far back as 2005, said last night: "The loss of the rainy season will mean that it will become like sub- Saharan Africa. We are now looking as a massive humanitarian crisis."

The monsoon failed in some years during the 19th century. Then, millions died. This time, the death toll could be in the tens of millions, unless the world comes to India's aid.

But officials at the World Food Programme said global grain stocks were at less than two weeks, after persistent droughts in North America, and epidemics of disease that developed in the world's main genetically modified crops of rice and wheat.

Indian meteorologists failed to predict this double failure of the monsoon. But one theory is that it is caused by a decline in the distant Gulf Stream, the Atlantic Ocean current that keeps Europe warm.

"Without the Gulf Stream, the air currents in Asia change and the monsoon winds no longer bring rain from the Indian Ocean," said one leading climatologist.

"For decades, Europeans have worried that the Gulf Stream might fail and plunge them into an ice age. Actually, it has only cooled them back down to the temperatures of a century ago. They are sitting pretty. But the real harm has been done to Asia. This is worse than Aids, and much quicker."

If the cause of the disaster does lie in the Atlantic, then the monsoon may never return, he said. India may become uninhabitable.

2060: Tsunami horror hits Britain

Methane 'bubble' blamed for catastrophic seabed slide as wave wipes east coast off map

A vast landslip beneath the North Sea last night unleashed a tsunami that submerged much of eastern Scotland and sent a tidal wave down the east coast of England. Tens of thousands are missing, presumed dead.

By early today, four hours after the wave struck, the scale of the destruction was still unclear. Communications with the stricken area are broken. Although the main impact struck the north-east, even central London is severely flooded, and there are fears that when water recedes, wide areas will be buried in up to 18 feet of silt and rock. The death toll could be greater than the Boxing Day tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean 56 years ago.

A small earthquake triggered the wave, but geologists say global warming is ultimately to blame, unlike in 2004. Over recent decades, warming had melted more than a billion tons of formerly frozen methane, beneath the ocean floor on the edge of the continent shelf off Norway. As the methane turned to gas, its volume increased more than a hundredfold, geochemists said. The gas burst through the seabed, causing the collapse of a submarine cliff 400km long. The debris fell more than a kilometre from the edge of the continental shelf into the ocean depths. This created a 20-metre high tsunami that surged across the North Sea in minutes.

As far back as 2006, experts were warning that global warming could lead to just such a catastrophe. Norwegian marine geologist Jürgen Mienart said then: "Current conditions are disturbingly similar to those in which the great methane releases of the past happened. Warming will cause more blowouts and more craters and more releases."

Some scientists believed that it would not happen for 200 years; others pointed out that cracks in the seabed would allow the methane to warm more quickly. "A tsunami happened once before, 8,000 years ago, when the waters off Norway warmed after the end of the last ice age," said a spokeswoman at the University of Tromso. "We have been warning for some time that there was still a lot of frozen methane under the seabed. And with warm ocean currents pushing further north each year, it was only a matter of time."

Methane is a greenhouse gas 100 times more potent that carbon dioxide. Climate scientists say the huge amounts bursting into the air are likely to warm the atmosphere by one degree Celsius or more. "This event is a huge tragedy for Britain, but it is also a major event for the world", said the World Climate Agency in Beijing. "The extra warming could set off other methane releases and more tsunamis."

The prime minister, at home in her constituency in north-east England, could not be reached. Officials at No 10 say they have no communication with the region, but fear the worst.

Front pages by Fred Pearce, author of 'The Last Generation: How Nature Will Take Her Revenge For Climate Change' from Eden Books