Climate Change – The Road to Paris

2015 is a critical year for the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change.  By the time the annual UN Climate Change Conference is held in Paris from 30 November – 11 December, it is hoped that countries from around the world will have decided on the emissions targets which they can put on the table (see French Government expectations here).  For developed countries such as the UK, these should involve significant reductions in current levels of emissions.  This will allow less developed countries some scope to increase emissions as they raise living standards, whilst also moving onto low-carbon development paths, with assistance from richer countries.

Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth Scotland (part of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland) are campaigning strongly for an agreement that can reduce total emissions and keep the global average temperature rise below 2 degrees celsius.  Scientists believe that above this level, various tipping points will be reached which will trigger further rapid warming, sending the planet’s climate systems into chaotic change.  Already the Arctic ice cap is severely reduced in the summer, and when it disappears the sun’s rays will no longer be reflected away by the ice, so summer Arctic temperatures will rise even more rapidly.  This will accelerate the melting of the Greenland ice cap, which in turn will speed up the rise in sea levels.  If the Antarctic ice cap also begins to break up, coastal cities around the world will be underwater.

Another “feedback loop” is the melting tundra in Siberia and Canada.  Frozen for thousands of years, this is already melting, allowing the remains of vegetation to decompose and release more greenhouse gases.  Methane is also trapped in muds below the oceans, and as these get warmer more of the gas is released.  It is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Many human activities contribute to increasing greenhouse gas levels, from industrial production and motor transport to agriculture.  Domestic energy use is another big contributor.  So we need to tackle our energy use in all these sectors, improve energy efficiency, and change to renewable energy production.  Electric vehicles can only help if we have enough renewable electricity production, such as from wind turbines and solar panels.  As living standards rise in less developed countries, people are buying more consumer goods, getting cars, and eating more meat.  More forest is cleared for agriculture.  All these trends are adding to the rise in emissions.  But less developed countries tend to be most affected by the destructive effects of climate change, such as the cyclones in the Philippines, torrential rainfall in parts of South America, China and Pakistan, and sea level rise around the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

There are many issues wrapped up in the debate on how to share responsibility for tackling climate change.  This has held up agreement for more than 20 years, whilst emissions have risen and the steps required to bring them under control have become much more challenging.  The investment in infrastructure (roads, factories, ports, power plants, housing) that will take place over the next few years around the world will determine whether we can limit the rise in temperature to 2 degrees celsius.  If countries fail to reach agreement in Paris, we (and our children) all face a very uncertain future.