Climate Clinic: LibDem conference

Professor Kevin Anderson: Point of no return

Without immediate action, catastrophic and irreversible climate change is surely on its way. That is why December's summit in Copenhagen is so important

A A A

The importance of the international climate summit to be held in Copenhagen later this year cannot be over- emphasised; 2009 is literally a make-or-break year in terms of climate-change negotiations. After almost two decades of increasingly heated debate on how to tackle climate change, and notwithstanding the current recession, emissions of global greenhouse gases – from energy use, agriculture, deforestation and industrial processes – are rising at a faster rate now than they have done throughout our history. As we enter the second decade of this new millennium, the international community is faced with a very clear and stark choice: to cut emissions urgently and radically, or to lock the next and future generations into "dangerous climate change".

For far too long now, scientists, politicians, the media and the public, while broadly accepting the science and implications of climate change, have stubbornly refused to acknowledge the scale of rising emissions. So while the rhetoric of low-carbon action has been notched up year after year, the reality is that collectively we have been on a high-carbon binge. Unfortunately, most of the emissions we have put into the atmosphere over the 17 years since the Earth Summit in Rio and the 12 years since the start of the Kyoto process, will remain there for another century – added to, year on year, by our increasingly carbon-profligate lifestyles.

It is this cumulative nature of emissions, whereby the concentration of greenhouses gases builds up in the atmosphere, combined with our abject failure even to curtail emissions' growth rate, that has brought us to this political tipping point. Either our politicians step up to the plate in Copenhagen and agree to implement an immediate reversal in emissions trends, or we consciously accept a continued and rapid build-up of emissions in the atmosphere with all the implications that entails. We no longer have the luxury of lengthy negotiations such as those associated with the Kyoto Protocol.

As for the scale of reductions necessary, again here we have all been party to downplaying the severity of the issue and are now faced with the consequences of this delusion. In this regard I and my colleagues in the scientific community are particularly responsible. For too long we have, with notable exceptions, been reluctant to spell out clearly the true implications of our analysis, instead couching our conclusions as challenging but politically palatable. However the scientific climate congress held in Copenhagen earlier this year, as a prelude to the political event in December, witnessed a sea-change in attitude among many in the scientific community. The message to policy-makers, businesses and the public is unambiguous. Radical reductions are needed now to give us even a small chance of avoiding the 2°C threshold between "acceptable" and "dangerous" climate change.

Putting this into everyday language, the wealthy, OECD, nations need to reduce their total emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2020, including emissions from aviation and shipping, and without buying emission reductions from poorer nations. Complete decarbonisation of the OECD's energy system needs to be in place by 2030. However these figures may be massaged, such reduction rates are incompatible with the current framing of economic growth. New low-carbon technologies are available, but for them to dominate our energy system will take at least two decades, time we simply don't have, as in the interim our emissions continue to build up in the atmosphere. Only once our energy system is carbon-free and our meat-eating substantially curtailed can we again consider seriously having a growing economy – provided it can be reconciled with the other demands of sustainability.

However, even such draconian reductions by the OECD nations leave only limited opportunities for the poor and less-wealthy nations to continue to increase their emissions. Consequently, while emissions in these nations will rise as their welfare improves, this rise needs to be kept to a minimum through comprehensive low-carbon technologies and policies. Ultimately, all nations across the globe will need to establish carbon-free societies over the coming few decades, completely counter to the rapid emission growth we have experienced since 2000.

While much of this rise has been driven by the newly industrialising nations of China and India, the problem to which they are now contributing is one caused by our emissions and to which we still are a major contributor. According to the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), absolute UK emissions have risen by 18 per cent since 1990, and show no clear of signs of bucking this trend in the near term. The recent and much-heralded US Waxman-Markey Bill requires no reductions by the US even by 2017, and only four per cent by 2020, half that of Japan's eight per cent target. Russia and New Zealand have no 2020 goals and the EU's target, though ambitious relative to others, is not comprehensive, allows for significant buy-out from poorer nations, and even then falls far short of what would be necessary to meet its own 2°C commitments.

Against this backdrop of a failure by any nation or region to demonstrate meaningful leadership, Copenhagen looks also doomed to failure. But this isn't an option. It has to succeed, driving home at least 40-per-cent cuts by 2020 from the world's wealthy countries and putting the poor and less-wealthy nations on to a low-emission-growth pathway. We have all the necessary policy tools and technologies to rise to this challenge. What we need now is political integrity, scientific candour, a public and business community that acknowledges they are part of both the problem and solution, and a press that resists the temptation for polemic headlines instead of honest reporting.

Professor Kevin Anderson is Research Director, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change

The heat is on: The UN estimates a rise in the global average temperature of between 1.8 and 4°C over the coming century. Anything over 2°C is likely to be catastrophic for the world

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Sport
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
i100
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation NQ+

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...

MANCHESTER - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION -

Highly Attractive Pakage: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - A highly attractive oppor...

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?