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

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Arts and Entertainment
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint)
newsBloomsbury unveils new covers for JK Rowling's wizarding series
News
scienceScientists try to explain the moon's funny shape
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
As Loki in The Avengers (2012)
filmRead Tom Hiddleston's email to Joss Whedon on prospect of playing Loki
Voices
voices In defence of the charcoal-furred feline, by Felicity Morse
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Education Recruitment Consultant- Learning Support

£18000 - £30000 per annum + Generous commission scheme: AER Teachers: Thames T...

All Primary NQT's

£100 - £120 per day + per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Description Calling a...

DT Teacher - Food Technology

£100 - £145 per day + Pension and travel: Randstad Education Maidstone: SUPPLY...

Supply Teachers Needed in Thetford

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Supply teachers neede...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star