Global warming is the world's problem

From a lecture given by Eric Ash, the treasurer ofthe Royal Society, at the British Association Festival of Science
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There is a growing consensus that global warming presents a real threat, and that we must begin to address it now. Not everyone is of this persuasion. There is a major energy company based in the US that does not appear to share these fears. But my personal view is that the threat is real and urgent and is neglected at our grandchildren's peril. The problem is technological, and I am a believer in the technological fix. The directions open to us include renewable energy sources, carbon sequestration, nuclear-fission energy and nuclear-fusion energy. There are also some prospects for an admittedly partial but nevertheless important sociological fix: to use less energy.

There is a growing consensus that global warming presents a real threat, and that we must begin to address it now. Not everyone is of this persuasion. There is a major energy company based in the US that does not appear to share these fears. But my personal view is that the threat is real and urgent and is neglected at our grandchildren's peril. The problem is technological, and I am a believer in the technological fix. The directions open to us include renewable energy sources, carbon sequestration, nuclear-fission energy and nuclear-fusion energy. There are also some prospects for an admittedly partial but nevertheless important sociological fix: to use less energy.

Renewable energy will make an increasing contribution to our needs. Enhancing the contribution from renewables is government policy. It is seeking to support this policy by the introduction of the "renewables obligation", under which all licensed suppliers must provide at least 10 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010.

Let us try to imagine a government that was not too interested in politics - perhaps a benign dictatorship, where the sky was untroubled by thoughts of elections or indeed of revolutions. How would it address the problem? Presumably such a government would start by motivating individuals to save energy. VAT on fuel would certainly not be less than that on other goods. It would impose a carbon tax adjusted periodically to achieve the wished-for reduction in emission. This tax would be imposed on all energy-users, but because we are imagining a benign dictatorship, the most vulnerable section of the community would be protected by grants so that the poorest households could still afford to buy fuel.

The purpose of all this is to avert global problems, but it would be at the immediate cost of the citizens of that country. Such a government would indeed have to be not only benign but altruistic, to be committed to working for the globe. And the more countries that were prepared to follow suit, the more the burden would become acceptable to Britain.

In the real world, in which governments do face elections, the difficulty of imposing sensible economic instruments is all too clear. The current problem with the price of petrol is a salient example. Progressively raising the price of petrol is sensible. And it can, eventually, lead to a reduction in consumption, partly as a result of people reverting to public transport, partly by people switching to cars with smaller engines.

Yet if the price of fuel is significantly lower on the other side of the Channel, this policy is, as we have seen, hard to sustain. Any attempt to use economic instruments will be facilitated if the economic region over which it applies is as large as possible. Europe may not, in the end, be large enough - but it is better than trying to legislate on an offshore island.

These considerations apply with even more force to the need for investment in research and development for renewables, nuclear power and carbon sequestration. We estimate that the funds required globally might amount to $25bn per annum - not out of reach considering national research and development budgets worldwide. Of course the chances of all countries subscribing is zero. But the basic principle - that it is only by international collaboration that it will be possible to address the problems we face with the vigour needed - must be learnt and accepted by national governments.

Pursuing such policies would be interpreted by some people as implying some loss of sovereignty. My view is that in a world where the economy is increasingly global, the concept of sovereignty needs to be reinterpreted. Indeed, the fact that the impact of CO2 emissions on world climate does not depend on who burnt the carbon is just one more dent in the idea of the independent nation state.

Comments