Kevin Anderson: Decision time... face the facts or give up

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It's the poorest of our fellow citizens who are most vulnerable to a changing climate


It is not possible to overestimate the global significance of the next two weeks of intense negotiation. Copenhagen is unprecedented; it is not an updated Kyoto and even Bretton Woods is little more than a footnote when compared to the magnitude and urgency of the challenge we now collectively face.

Given the uncomfortable repercussions associated with the scale of emissions reductions necessary to avoid "dangerous climate change", it is not surprising that the build-up to Copenhagen has triggered a co-ordinated backlash attempting to undermine the science of climate change.

However, whilst important questions have been raised about "process" and "communication", the validity of the science itself has emerged unscathed and, I believe, strengthened. Despite the best attempts of often well-funded "sceptics" picking over the minutiae of the science, the principal objections have been about the alleged behaviour of individual scientists rather than the science itself – a distinction overlooked in much of the reporting on the issue.

Away from this distraction, the real issues of how the global community can respond to the magnitude and urgency of the challenge remain both unchanged and central to the Copenhagen process.

Whilst the next fortnight of discussions in the Danish capital is pivotal to thrashing out the scope and structure of any meaningful agreement, stringent targets and detailed national commitments are unlikely to be forthcoming at this stage. Consequently, Copenhagen must be seen not as the last battle, but as a kick-start to an intense international process culminating, within a year, in detailed national commitments informed by the science of climate change.

Anything short of this will mean knowingly bequeathing to future generations a life of hardship and uncertainty at best and social and environmental collapse at worst. Moreover, our failure to act now condemns many millions of the world's poorest citizens to the additional ravages and instability of a rapidly changing climate.

So what is the scale of the challenge, why is it fundamentally different from what has gone before, and what do targets from the Copenhagen process need to look like? In 1992, the Earth Summit in Rio thrust what had hitherto been a scientific issue – climate change – into the political arena. However, whilst precedents existed for similar transitions in the guise of acid rain and ozone depletion, in reality these are wholly inadequate analogues for this new challenge.

Unlike sulphur or chlorofluorocarbons (responsible for acid rain and the ozone depletion respectively) carbon is ubiquitous, so whether it's the energy we consume, the production of fertiliser, the food we eat or the cement we manufacture, greenhouse gas emissions are implicated. Certainly substitutes exist for all of these. But with a growing population and all current models of development and industrialisation premised on cheap and abundant hydrocarbons, the challenge of a wholesale transition of contemporary society to low or zero carbon in little more than a couple of decades is unprecedented.

In recent weeks we've seen provisional commitments from several major emitting nations to achieve either absolute reductions in emissions (US) or lower the emissions per unit of economic growth (China and India) by 2020. These transitions should be welcomed. But they are little more than token gestures when compared with the scale of what the science concludes is necessary to give even a 50:50 chance of avoiding "dangerous climate change".

Unfortunately, and in complete contrast to what the sceptics would have us all believe, scientists have repeatedly underplayed or at least remained quiet as to the scale of the disjuncture between the science and politics of climate change. For example, the Stern and Committee on Climate Change reports are premised on global emissions reaching their highest levels by 2015 and 2016 respectively, before beginning a process of year-on-year reductions.

But amongst those working on climate change there is near-universal acknowledgment that such early peaking years are politically unacceptable – yet the Stern and the CCC analyses remain pivotal in the formation of emission-reduction policy. Statements by the US, China and India, allied with commitments from other nations, suggest peaking global emissions between 2020 and 2030 is about as hard as the economic and political orthodoxy is prepared to push.

Consequently, if Copenhagen is to have any chance of kick-starting a global movement to stay below the 2C characterisation of dangerous climate change, it must inspire and instigate a rapid shift away from the current political and economic consensus. If peaking global emissions between 2020 and 2030 are left unquestioned, the cumulative quantity of greenhouse gases emitted will be sufficient to put temperatures on a 4C or higher trajectory. Accordingly, the first challenge for Copenhagen is to get political buy-in to what the science is saying in relation to, at least, a 50:50 chance of not exceeding 2C.

In brief, wealthy (OECD) nations need to peak emissions by around 2012, achieve at least a 60 per cent reduction in emissions from energy by 2020, and fully decarbonise their energy systems by 2030 at the latest. Alongside this, the "industrialising" nations (non-OECD) need to peak their collective emissions by around 2025 and fully decarbonise their energy systems by 2050. This scale of reductions is presently far removed from that which the negotiators in Copenhagen are intending to consider.

The second challenge for Copenhagen, therefore, is to make a clear and explicit decision to do all that is necessary to put global emissions on a C pathway, even if this requires a temporary cessation in economic growth amongst the wealthy OECD nations.

An alternative, but equally honest, response would be to acknowledge that we lack the necessary moral fibre to make the requisite short-term reductions and openly accept our inaction will lead to high levels of "dangerous climate change" with all that entails for the poorer communities around the globe and also for future generations. Either way, as a minimum, any output from the Copenhagen process needs to be upfront, honest and direct.

Professor Kevin Anderson is director of the Tyndall Energy Programme at the Universities of Manchester and East Anglia

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operation Caseworker

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Caseworker is req...

Recruitment Genius: Contact Centre Advisor

£19500 - £21500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading children's chariti...

Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Senior Sales Broker - OTE £100,000

£20000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportuni...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor