John Houghton: Take the flood tide now

Britain's top climatologist says a G8 fudge on global warming could be disastrous
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The Independent Online

Every year, by burning fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, we add over 7 billion tons of carbon (as carbon dioxide) to the atmosphere. It is changing our climate, and disastrously. The more the world heats up, the more frequent and intense will be the disasters that follow. Floods, droughts and storm surges on top of rising sea levels are bad news for all of us, but particularly for the world's poorer countries, which are the most vulnerable and least well equipped to cope.

Every year, by burning fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, we add over 7 billion tons of carbon (as carbon dioxide) to the atmosphere. It is changing our climate, and disastrously. The more the world heats up, the more frequent and intense will be the disasters that follow. Floods, droughts and storm surges on top of rising sea levels are bad news for all of us, but particularly for the world's poorer countries, which are the most vulnerable and least well equipped to cope.

Increasingly intense heatwaves - far greater than the sort we saw last week - are becoming more common. Scientists now agree that the central European heatwave of 2003, which led to the death of over 20,000 people, was largely due to an increase in greenhouse gases, for which humans are responsible.

These facts are becoming increasingly well known, and not before time. More and more people are saying, "Something must be done." Earlier this month, the scientific academies of all the G8 countries, including the US, plus China, India and Brazil, issued a unanimous and unprecedented statement. It calls on world leaders at the G8 summit to (1) acknowledge that the threat of climate change is clear and increasing and (2) identify action that can be taken now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It also points out that failure to implement reductions now will make the job much harder in the future. The world's leading scientists have spoken very clearly. In 10 days' time, the world's top leaders will have a unique opportunity to take action commensurate with the problem. Will they take it? I dread to think of the consequences of their not doing so.

As the academies say, there is no time to lose. We already know that the earth is warming and the climate is changing. But because the oceans take time to warm, there is a delay in the response of climate to increasing greenhouse gases. It is not generally appreciated that, because of greenhouse gas emissions to date, changes will occur over the next 30 to 50 years to which we are inevitably committed. Further emissions just add to that commitment. And because the carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuel-burning remains in the atmosphere on average for a century or more, there is no practical way of putting climate change into reverse.

Alongside the science, there is an economic reason, too, for urgent action. Energy infrastructure, for instance in power stations, also lasts, typically, for 30 to 50 years. It is much more cost-effective to begin now to phase in the required infrastructure changes rather than having to make them much more rapidly later.

A further argument for urgency is a political one. Countries such as China and India are industrialising very rapidly. A senior energy adviser to the Chinese government recently let it be known that China by itself would not be making big moves to non-fossil fuel sources. When the developed nations of the West take action, they will act decisively - they will follow, not lead. China is building new electricity-generating capacity equivalent to one new one-gigawatt power station every week, almost all of it from coal. If we want to give an example of effective leadership, we need to start now.

Climate change is also an important moral issue. Over the past 200 years, we in the developed world have built our industries on energy from fossil fuels. With only one quarter of the world's population, we continue to be responsible for over two-thirds of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. The Framework Convention on Climate Change signed by all countries in 1992 (including by President George Bush Snr for the US) recognised the responsibility this placed on developed countries to be the first to take action. Yet we drag our feet, some even saying they'll do nothing unless developing countries join in. That is taking the moral low ground, not the moral high ground where we ought to be. Nor does it do anything to show the way.

In recent weeks, the scientists have been shouting louder than ever. But there are now many other voices clamouring to be heard, not least in the United States, led by Governor Schwarzenegger in California. Over 150 local governments in the United States - representing more than 50 million citizens and over 20 per cent of all US greenhouse gas emissions - have pledged to reduce emissions by 7 per cent by 2012, a commitment greater than that of Europe. Some of the world's largest companies - including many in the US, for instance Dupont, BP, Shell, General Electric, Exelon Corporation, Cinergy and many more - are speaking out about climate change and taking action to reduce emissions. More religious groups are speaking out about the spiritual imperative of caring for God's earth and its people. Most surprisingly, last week the US Senate called for a comprehensive national programme of action on greenhouse gas emissions. The voices that speak about the reality and the threat of climate change are rapidly increasing in number and are getting louder. The G8 leaders need to listen - especially those still stuck with an agenda of denial.

Drafting of the G8 statement on climate change has been going on for some time in those countries' capitals. Of great concern are recent leaks showing how it has become weaker and emasculated in the drafting process. Much of the original text explaining the severity of the threat and the need for action seems to have disappeared completely - it is not even in square brackets for later discussion.

Over the past year, Tony Blair has shown unflagging determination to use his presidency of the G8 and of the EU in 2005 as opportunities to make progress with what he rightly sees as two of the world's greatest problems, namely Africa and climate change. A weak and empty statement on climate change from Gleneagles would not only be a missed opportunity but would send out negative messages and set back progress in climate change action by years. If a statement of action adequate to the threat cannot be agreed, it would be better if no statement at all were issued. Tony Blair would then need to explain the absence of agreement while reiterating his own continuing commitment and plans for action. With so much at stake, diplomatic niceties must take a back seat.

The G8 leaders would do well to remember too that aid and debt relief are not the end of the story for Africa. Climate change will increase the continent's problems very seriously, and already has. What is the point of taking steps to reduce poverty with one hand while, by ignoring climate change, increasing it with the other? The two problems are inseparable.

Europe has already taken a lead in climate change action. Now, as the EU faces its budget and constitutional crises, under the Blair presidency the EU could take the lead in creating an energy future that will satisfy both the tough constraints set by the need to stabilise climate and also the demands of our economies. Just as the initial drive for the EU's formation was the requirement for food security, now we need climate security. A modernised EU should recognise this. It should also acknowledge that climate security will not be achieved without the full participation of developing economies such as China and India, both of which will be represented at Gleneagles.

In September, when the EU meets China, they could and should discuss how to develop technologies free of carbon emissions, especially clean coal technology. Gleneagles is also a great opportunity for concerted action. Tony Blair, admirably, wants the G8 to rise above parochial interests and act on the world's most pressing problems. He must take full advantage of the flood tide or if he fails to do so, as Shakespeare eloquently reminds us, he will commit the world to be "bound in shallows and in miseries" for a long time to come. But, Mr Bush, he needs help.

The writer is former chief executive of the Met Office and former chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. He is the author of 'Global Warming: the Complete Briefing'

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