Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Three Degrees (...or the inevitability of global warming).

No matter what we do now, the global temperature will continue to rise. Even if Mr Blair manages to convince the rest of the world to join his gang and sign-up to a global consensus on stabilising greenhouse gas emissions, the world is likely to experience a temperature increase of 3 degrees Centigrade, according to the U.K. government's Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir David King. He warned that even if such international agreement could be met - unlikely, given the U.S.'s refusal to so comply, on the grounds that to do so would "ruin the U.S. economy" as George Bush put it, and India and China's need to increase their economies in order to tackle the poverty of their combined and rising population of 2.5 billion people - at 550 parts per million of CO2, this would cause a temperature rise in excess of the 2 degrees C that the U.K. government seeks, in accord with the limits set by the European Union.
3 degrees C might not sound like much, but the consequences of such a temperature rise are forecast to be profound. For instance, it is estimated that there would be a fall in cereal production of 400 million tonnes, placing around 400 million people at risk of hunger; further stress on already dwindling supplies of fresh water would pose between 1.2 billion and 3 billion people in danger of water shortages. The effect of a 3 deg. C rise would compromise the various ecosystems of the earth, such as natural forests, few of which could adapt to the stress thus imposed upon them, and it is likely that half of nature reserves would no longer be worthwhile and one fifth of coastal wetlands would be lost to flooding.
In Professor King's view, it is unlikely that Mr Blair will manage to obtain unanimous global consensus (and practical action beyond the usual lip-service, if even that I would venture!); however, this doesn't mean we should do nothing and be bludgeoned into an attitude of apathy and despondency where we shrug our shoulders hopelessly and carry on with our business as usual. We are going to have to cut our use of fuel in any case, once the supply becomes too expensive to squander - I note this morning that the price of oil has reached $75 a barrel, and probably "Peak Oil" is already with us. So, we'd better all hang-on to our seats in the repercussions of this fact.
It is interesting though that the U.K. looks almost certainly set to miss its own target to cut CO2 emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by the year 2010 (which is only three and a half years away). I remember that when that target was set, 2010 seemed a comfortingly distant date - now it is almost with us. So, we are not setting too good an example if Mr Blair expects other nations to rally to our cause, especially developing nations like India, China and those in Latin America, all with rather more pressing agendas of their own. In the face of poverty, rhetoric about CO2 emissions must seem a nebulous luxury. At one stage the U.K. appeared to be doing well, having indeed cut its CO2 discharges into the atmosphere, but this was a red herring and had nothing to do with cuts in energy use or gains in energy efficiency, but was simply the result of switching over to cheap natural gas as a fuel for power stations, from more expensive coal, since gas is a more energy-rich fuel and produces less CO2 than coal does per unit of electricity generated. Ironically, economics now looks set to reverse this trend.
The U.K. is now a net importer of gas, and will henceforth rely on imports of gas from elsewhere, with unpredictable vagaries in its supply. (However, as a Post Script in this see-saw saga, the government has just announced its intention to build new gas-fired power plants - I wonder whether ultimately they will in fact become coal-fired?). Gas prices (and electricity prices too, since much of the U.K.'s electricity is made from burning gas) are about to increase sharply, and the government - at last! - is now called for "energy efficiency". In consequence of both forces - economic and of supply worries - it appears that we will switch, at least partly, back to coal, and this will increase the nation's CO2 emissions, unless we cut electricity production dramatically, which we won't!
In order to hit our 20% CO2 reduction target by 2010, we need to make personal changes, inasmuch as reducing use of gas/electricity in the home, at work (for those of us who are self-employed and have an office at home it is the same difference), and cutting-out unnecessary journeys. As I have commented before, by changing our society to a more "localised" level of operation, we could cut-out 90% of transportation immediately, which would eliminate 90% of 26% of the nation's total energy bill or 23%, all of which is derived from burning liquid petroleum fuel - oil! - and so our CO2 emissions would be well within the limits set for them.
The sad fact is that it matters not one iota what the U.K. does, and even if we alone do by some means meet the target set for us by our elected leadership, the good work will literally be swamped-out by the rising levels of CO2 from China, India and the recalcitrant "U.S. of A", all of them acting on economic grounds. Ultimately, all nations will be forced to cut their emissions from transportation as we head downwards on the roller-coaster of Peak Oil; an inexorable perspective heralded from the relatively comfortable flat fulcrum of "Hubbert's Peak", where we appear to be just now. We will continue to burn gas directly as a fuel to make electricity, while it remains available as a stable supply at an acceptable cost. Then we will burn coal, and lots of it.
Interestingly in the U.K., either to put a literal seal on the coal industry or in an act of spite, or both, many of the coal mines were filled with concrete. This was an economic decision, since Margaret Thatcher's government believed we would never again need our (then) uneconomic coal industry - riddled with militancy and strikes - since we were rich in gas and oil and could buy coal cheaper from Germany and Eastern Europe than mine it ourselves. Now the tables may be turned, and the current government will need to blast away the concrete as a first stage to revamp the extraction of a fuel we need once again to produce on our own shores.
It doesn't look too good regarding CO2 emissions, however, but I suspect such considerations will take an economic back-seat in the U.K. as they seem to have done in those other countries which bear more than half the world's population.

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