A Barrie Pittock discusses the challenge we must accept if we are to respond effectively to the threat of climate change.
The author is a renowned atmospheric scientist and climate researcher. He has worked mainly with the Atmospheric Research Division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Melbourne, Australia. In 1988, he founded the Climate Impact Group at CSIRO where, until his retirement, he lead and developed the science and the understanding of climate change and its environmental and social consequences.
When President John F Kennedy called the United States to action in space, he uttered the words that might apply even more convincingly to the cause of securing our civilization from the risk of human-induced dangerous climate change. He said that we choose to do these things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because the goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because the challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."
Coping with the climate change issue is in many ways a greater challenge than the space race. It is more multi-faceted, more fundamental to our civilization, and likely to be an ongoing challenge for this and future generations. It is a question of foresight, because it involves seeing into the future to see what is required of us today. It is a matter of risk management, because we cannot predict the future, but merely look at the possibilities, attach tentative probabilities conditional on human behaviour, and use that to decide policy today.
It is also a matter of faith - faith in science, faith in people to meet the challenge, and faith that human ingenuity and adaptability can cope with the challenge. Faith and hope, like despair, can be self-fulfilling prophecies. If people believe they can make a difference, they will act and, in so doing, will make a difference. If, however, they despair and choose to do nothing, they will be overtaken by events: they will have abdicated their choice. People either choose and act for a sustainable future, or they contribute to a growing environmental disaster. Climate change is serious and urgent stuff, but you can make a difference.
People hate doom and gloom - it turns people off. This is not what this is about. It is about new and exciting technologies, creating new markets, making new investments and taking advantage of new opportunities. It is about solving several problems at once, co-benefits and complementary strategies. It is about enjoying our relationship with nature and creating a sustainable future. It is about making life better.
It is a curious thing that many people choose to see climate change as an either/or problem. Either we must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases or we must adapt to climate change. In fact there is no choice - we have to do both. We must adapt to what cannot be avoided, but also act to reduce the magnitude of the climate changes to keep them within safe limits. There are limits to what humans can adapt to, and there are limits to how fast we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And we have to do both as best we can.
History tells us that humans are adaptable and ingenious in devising new technologies. It is, therefore, strange that some think we are so ingenious we can adapt to anything, yet not be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at an affordable cost. And others argue the opposite - that we are so clever that we can almost instantly cut greenhouse gas emissions at an acceptable cost, yet cannot adapt to even minor climate changes. Again, we can and must do both. We can simultaneously devise new technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions thus building a low-carbon economy over the next half-century, while at the same time adapt to the changes we have not been able to prevent.
On both the mitigation and adaptation fronts there are great opportunities ahead. If we seize these opportunities we can achieve wonders, and even do so while developing our economies and simultaneously reducing poverty and inequity.
The situation is urgent. No potential contributions to emissions reduction should be ruled out on the basis of prejudice against particular technologies or socio-economic biases. Whether it is wind power, geo-sequestration or nuclear power, mitigation options should be examined for timeliness, safety, acceptability and economic potential, rather than ruled out on the basis of some pre-existing ideological position. Competitive infighting on an either/or basis is counter-productive.
Faced with the challenge of achieving rapid sustainable development, countries such as China, India and Brazil are starting to build new low-carbon technologies, and will gain competitive advantages from doing so. In so doing, they will reduce local air pollution problems, increase employment, and avoid excessive reliance on foreign sources of fossil fuels. They are not necessarily consistent in this, as the increasing use of private automobiles rather than bicycles and public transport testifies. Yet the challenge is being faced, and these and other developing countries have the opportunity to adopt strategies and to design and build infrastructures that will achieve sustainability, including a stable climate.
The poorer lesser-developed countries, such as much of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, are in many cases not yet on a rapid development pathway. Instead, they are struggling to cope with poverty, natural and man-made disasters such as floods, drought and civil wars, unrest and instability. For them energy policy is a matter of survival, and climate change considerations rate low on their list of priorities. Yet, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has pointed out, they are likely to be worst affected by climate change, with reduced crop yields, more climatic disasters and flooding due to sea-level rise. For these countries sustainable development needs to come first in the form of disaster preparedness, aid in developing dispersed forms of renewable energy, and efforts by the rest of the world not to make matters worse through climate change.
The challenge in developed countries is in some ways greater because they have so much more already invested in inappropriate and unsustainable infrastructures. These include inefficient coal-fired power stations; hundreds of millions of polluting motor vehicles; vast road systems designed for private transport; under-utilized, run-down or even abandoned public transport systems; and highly energy-inefficient building stock. Much of this existing stock needs to be transformed and upgraded, or written off and replaced, in order to meet more sustainable standards.
Central to all these situations is how to foster rapid growth in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and how to minimize greenhouse gas emissions now. Urgent results can only be achieved through existing technologies such as greater energy efficiency (insulation, hybrid cars and so on) and proven renewable technology such as biomass ethanol, and solar and wind power. This must be backed up with new and emerging technology, including appropriate carbon removal and sequestration, and, if possible, safe and secure nuclear power. But these latter capital-expensive technologies will only achieve massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over the course of many decades, due to the need for research and development, large embedded energy costs and slow uptake. They are as yet largely unproven in the market place and require large long-term research, development and investment.
It is government policies that can engender a sense of urgency that might come from mandatory targets for energy efficiency, renewable energy and reductions in emissions. And it is tax incentives and other measures that would accelerate the development and commercialization of low-carbon technology by internalizing environmental costs.
In some developed countries, notably the European Union countries, governments are accepting the challenge of developing low-carbon technology to meet necessary targets, although there is still debate about how realistic the measures being implemented are in achieving these goals.
Recognition and ownership of the climate change problem is urgent. It requires understanding and education, but also action by governments to set standards and create the business climate in which innovators and entrepreneurs can flourish. Markets may be efficient in achieving least-cost solutions when they recognize a problem or opportunity, but too often they are focused on the short-term and fail to recognize long-term challenges. Climate change requires urgent action in the short-term, to fulfil long-term goals. Mandatory targets and other government carrots and sticks can stimulate this sense of urgency.
Looking beyond the Kyoto Protocol
With the notable exceptions of the United States and Australia, most of the world has accepted that the Kyoto Protocol is a good starting point in getting greenhouse gas emissions under control. Together with its parent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol has set initial emissions targets for the developed countries, to be achieved by 2008-12, along with several principles and mechanisms. Central to the thinking in the Kyoto Protocol is the idea of differentiated responsibilities, with developed countries, who are the largest per capita emitters, taking the lead in the first commitment period, and the idea of sustainable development for all countries, especially the less developed ones.
The Kyoto Protocol emissions targets, and exclusion of developing countries from them, apply only until 2012, after which a new formula must be developed. The key arguments that have been traditionally used to argue the need for international agreements on mitigation of climate change apply to new agreements going beyond the Kyoto Protocol. International agreements are necessary as they are more likely to create a level playing field where countries and businesses have equitable access to markets and standards and know what to expect, foster international equity and sustainable development, and discourage or penalize free-loaders. By creating truly international markets such agreements can also achieve greatest efficiency in emissions reduction, and in so doing foster a real sense of urgency.
Considerations in arriving at any new international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions include:
Whatever we may want - and the UNFCCC goal of avoiding dangerous levels of greenhouse gases seems like a reasonable objective - the strategy must be related to a realistic assessment of the success likely to be achieved.
A number of possible approaches to a future mitigation agreement have been made. Some key proposals are listed in the following table.
Possible approaches to a post-Kyoto agreement
Contraction and convergence
Addressing the key issues
We have seen that, despite the uncertainties, there is a real and present danger that our continuing large-scale burning of fossil fuels is pushing the climate system into a situation where there is a risk of serious damage to us and our children. This danger increases with every year that we fail to take appropriate action, yet there are potential solutions out there, which we could apply.
Individuals often feel helpless in the face of global situations such as these. However, decisions are made by individuals, sometimes alone and often acting together. It is the sum of all these decisions that will make the difference. We act as decision makers in business, as investors or entrepreneurs, as members of political parties or in government and non-government organizations, as voters, and most of all as consumers. As individuals and groups we can act to conserve energy and minimize our greenhouse gas emissions. We can adopt more environmentally-friendly lifestyles, reward energy conscious suppliers and turn the market around. We can make a difference.
If we do not act now, we are in danger of inadvertently tripping the 'on' switch to disaster, with an inevitably long delay before it can be turned off again. What is done now that enhances climate change cannot be easily undone, so we should err on the side of caution. We need to reduce carbon emissions, and we need to do it fast. We owe that, at least, to our children.