Climate and energy policy in perspective

Scientific Alliance in the UK, by its director Martin Livermore:

14 December 2012

Not surprisingly, perhaps, no big new issues have come to the top of the environmental agenda in the last year. Climate change remains the key issue which has dominated thinking for the 21st Century so far. However, the Copenhagen COP15 summit in 2009 arguably marked the high-water level of momentum on mitigation efforts. After the failure to make any substantive progress on agreeing a post-Kyoto settlement, succeeding conferences in Cancun, Durban and Doha have received fairly low-key coverage in the media and expectations remain low.

Activists have tried for some time to put forward lurid visions of a planet nearing the point of no return and committed to temperature rises of several degrees, bringing catastrophe to both the human race and many of the other species we share the Earth with. They realise that there is only a certain window of opportunity to embed new opinions in people’s minds and generate a groundswell of backing for action to be taken. It takes time to get to that position and, once the momentum begins to fade, it is pretty much impossible to revive it.

Perhaps the sort of radical agreement on worldwide decarbonisation which the climate change community craves was always impossible. Politicians, after all (with a few repressive exceptions in countries for whom climate change is anyway not an issue which bothers them) can only go so far without at least the tacit approval of their citizens. But the financial crises from 2008 onwards have certainly changed what most of us are prepared to accept.

As people no longer automatically look forward to continued improvement in their standard of living, attention turns again to the cost of basics. Unnecessary rises in energy prices not only hit consumers directly, but also  increase the costs of food, travel, housing and consumer goods. Ten years ago, they may have been grudgingly accepted, but today things are different.

Hence the lack of progress in the ongoing round of climate change talks. The political will has faded to some extent, even in Europe. Of course, some agreements result, but their practical impact is unlikely to be large. The latest, from the recent Doha conference, established the principle that developing countries might claim compensation from the industrialised world for damage caused by rising temperatures, given that it is the West which has burned the majority of the fossil fuels consumed to date. This nicely sidesteps the fact that it is China which increasingly dominates current anthropogenic emissions, while appealing to the current fashion for modern societies to atone for the sins of the past.

In practice, this will be involve many in the legal profession and the international climate change bureaucracy, but its impact is likely to extend only to perhaps one or two high profile cases. After all, since we cannot yet properly account for the observed changes in weather patterns, how can the degree of responsibility for any supposed damage be assigned? If it were to be based on the composite output of flawed and incomplete computer models, that would surely redefine the definition of evidence. Testimony based on the opinions of climate scientists would hardly be better. And low-lying island states, anxious about being swamped by rising sea levels, would certainly have to account for the fact that their elevation above the ocean during the last century of rising sea level has remained pretty much the same (coral islands are dynamic, both eroding and growing constantly).

In 2007, the IPCC published its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), to blanket media coverage. It will be interesting to see if AR5, due next year, will attract as much attention. There will be those who still try to over-egg the messages from such a vast synthesis of research output, and the politically-determined Summary for Policymakers is unlikely to be entirely balanced. But the impact of this report is unlikely to be as big as the previous four.

Whatever messages emerge, they will be heard by a divided public. Not everyone is convinced about the story of impending catastrophe. Others are simply more focussed on the realities of daily life and are concerned more about rising energy prices that what summers may be like in 2050. But we should not forget that what I suppose I should now call the climate change narrative is becoming more and more ingrained in the public psyche. The majority of politicians accept the IPCC view and it is also implicit in the education system. Younger generations will grow up largely accepting the enhanced global warming hypothesis unless the scientific establishment changes its view. 

This is something which societies and governments will continue to live with for many years to come, but the practical implications are harder to fathom. The likelihood is that there will be continued moves to re-engineer the energy sector, but these will be constrained by the realities of economic and political life. In the meantime, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will continue to rise and, at some stage, our understanding of climate systems may be good enough to convince governments either to scrap or else reinvigorate the current failing policies.

Meanwhile, in parallel, discoveries and technology development will proceed and produce surprising results which will undoubtedly have a major impact on energy generation and use. The energy supply in 50 years time may be determined more by economics and technology than attempts to tune the climate to our liking.