Saturday, October 08, 2011

David Cameron, you must go to Durban this December & end subsidies for fossil fuels

David Cameron has his head in the clouds

This week David Cameron appeared to play down his party's commitment to tackling climate change by not even mentioning the topic in his keynote speech to the Tory Party conference.

It is unlikely that the shift in rhetorical emphasis will impact on the many commitments and measures in the legislative pipeline, but it may have an impact in two important areas: on investment decisions and on the vital UNFCCC Durban Climate Summit which is fast approaching.

The need for international action has never been more paramount, and it is tremendously important that Cameron is unwavering on the international stage for drastic measures to curb emissions.

The evidence for this is overwhelming. I will discuss some of it, and the single most simple policy that could be implemented to achieve the level of cuts required.

It was announced this week that global carbon dioxide emissions have increased by a staggering 45% since 1990, according to the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) and other sources.

This puts the world in the region of the high emissions scenarios discussed in the last IPCC report (see below).

At the same time, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said on Tuesday that subsidies for fossil fuel consumption are actually rising - they totalled $409 billion in 2010, compared to $312 billion in 2009, with oil products having the largest share at $193 billion in 2010 with natural gas getting $91 billion.

Iran and Saudi Arabia were the countries with the biggest subsidies.

The IEA's Chief Economist Fatih Birol said that "without further reform, spending on fossil fuel consumption subsidies is set to reach $660 billion in 2020, or 0.7 percent of global gross domestic product".

Yet leaders of the Group of 20 (G20) countries committed in Pittsburgh in 2009 to phase out these subsidies.

OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria said doing so is an obvious way to save money. "As they (nations) look for policy responses to the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes, phasing out subsidies is an obvious way to help governments meet their economic, environmental and social goals".

It would also cut global energy demand by 4% and considerably reduce carbon emissions growth, the IEA said.

If David Cameron can't find it easy to support a call to phase out the subsidies, and do so himself, then he should tell us why.

(By the way, if you think renewables get too much in the way of subsidies, research published this week in the States shows that nuclear subsidies there at least accounted for more than one percent of the federal budget over the first 15 years of each subsidies’ life; oil and gas subsidies made up half a percent of the total budget, but renewables have amounted to only about a tenth of a percent.)

Using market measures alone is not working as a way of limiting emissions. The 3.5 million EU carbon emissions permits which the UK sold on the market last Thursday went for a price of 10.38 euros each.

This is the lowest price since it started auctions in November 2008, and will not encourage anything like the level of investment needed in greenhouse gas emission abatement technology.

It does strengthen the case for the introduction of a robust carbon price floor, but it also shows other types of action are required.

In a sign of its desperation that the message is not getting through to politicians, the Tyndall Centre this week attempted once more to draw attention to a paper it had first published in a Royal Society journal in 2009, saying that the world could very possibly reach an average global temperature of 4oC higher than pre-industrial levels as early as 2060, with catastrophic consequences for all life on earth.

The paper is peer-reviewed and written by Richard Betts at the Hadley Centre of the Met Office and uses the most accurate and authoritative climate modelling systems currently available.

The Tyndall Centre is based at the University of East Anglia, now famous for the hacked emails scandal, yet exonerated of any bias in its scientific reports by three separate investigations.

(The centre is named after John Tyndall, the man who first discovered the global warming effect 150 years ago - this year marks that anniversary.)

What the paper says

The paper looks at a particular set of scenarios that were considered in the (last) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), published in 2007. (The 5th is due in 2014.)

AR4's projections suggested that in the absence of mitigation high levels of warming were possible and the median of these was approximately 4?C.

The modelling used at the time did not include certain climate-warming carbon-cycle feedback features, plus more recent measurements that since became available; and the high-emissions scenario - which we now are confident we are within - was not examined with complex general circulation models (GCMs).

Betts' paper looks at this range of scenarios of future greenhouse-gas emissions without policies, including this information.

In other words, looking as best as we can at the world we live in now, in which, year after year, UNFCCC summits come and go and no legally binding agreements are reached.

The paper concludes: "Our best estimate is that a temperature rise of 4?C would be reached in the 2070s, and if carbon-cycle feedbacks are strong, then 4?C could be reached in the early 2060s."

When originally published, the journal did trigger an alarmist headline in the Daily Telegraph with graphic descriptions of how the world would change. It gave fuel to Ed Miliband's efforts to secure a legally bunding deal at Copenhagen. But it did not achieve sufficient global recognition.

I spoke to Asher Minns at the Tyndall Centre and he said he tweeted the paper in an attempt to give it more recognition.

I then spoke to its author, Richard Betts. I asked him whether he could put a figure on the probability of the world reaching this level of warming by that date, and he said "That entirely depends on the policies adopted by politicians".

I asked him about the current state of climate research, and he said that the Hadley Centre "is now working on a huge project coupled climate models with all modelling across the world being run through a commonly agreed protocol, so we know we are comparing like with like, which ones are more or less sensitive to emissions.

"It is mostly work in progress, and will be ready in next year. The deadline is July, and the papers will be accepted by March 2013 for publication in the 2014 report."

The slowness of this work is frustrating for everyone, but science cannot be hurried. I asked Richard if this frustrates him. "No, we have to get it right," he said.

DECC commissions reports from the Hadley Centre, including a paper for the Durban talks that is "more about drawing together information that is already out there into a tight context".

He said the global carbon project will release its annual update in a month, however.

Richard is typical of climate scientists in refusing to be drawn on policy or urgency, saying it is beyond his remit.

"I have no role in saying this is urgent or anything. We have no political objective whatsoever. We are just trying to find the science."

He says all they can do is lay this before politicians. It is up to them to decide how to act.

Does he think that journalists like myself convey the science well?

"In some cases the messages are too simple," he replied. "But our research can be misused either way. It depends on peoples' attitude to risk - people must be informed. But I do think that journalists should convey the science better."

If climate scientists are clear that it is up to politicians to show leadership on the basis of the science, and the science is as clear as it is, then it is incumbent on the consciences of politicians to give these humble toilers on the frontlines of understanding due weight in their deliberations, in comparison to the clamouring of vested interests or focus groups.

In simple language, Mr Cameron: go to Durban. Demonstrate leadership. Cut subsidies to fossil fuels.

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