UK Targets “Not Enough To Prevent World Extinction”
Stephen Stretton, Cambridge
1st August 2007
The current UK greenhouse gas targets are not enough to avoid a world
extinction on a scale last seen with the end of the dinosaurs.
Even if we hit the government’s target of reducing Carbon Dioxide
pollution, and most other countries adopt a similar approach – the
world could be committed to up to six degrees of climate change.
The impacts would include collapse of the Amazon rainforest and most
of the world’s fertile farmland turning to desert. Rising seas would
flood major cities such as London, New York, Shanghai and Calcutta. It
would lead to the extinction of most life on earth.
If the UK is to lead, it must lead much more strongly. Current targets
are simply not enough. We to avoid 2C of climate change based on
convergence to safe and fair equal per-capita emissions. This may mean
a 90% reduction in all greenhouse gases by 2030 in the UK.
I recently made a submission on the subject of the Climate Bill to the
All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group. This group, chaired by
Colin Challen MP, contains MPs from all parties with an interest in
climate change and other groups with an interest in climate change.
MPs recently criticised the Climate Bill in a stinging report: “Beyond
Stern: From the Climate Change Programme Review to the Draft Climate
Change Bill”. The Environmental Audit committee pointed out
“Government targets are at risk of becoming incoherent”. They
highlighted the contradictions in the government’s policy: “We are
unimpressed by the government’s arguments for excluding international
aviation”. Now the full implications of the climate bill are outlined
in stark detail.
The proposed UK target is a 60% reduction in the rate of pollution by
2050, to a rate of 4 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide per person per year (our
current carbon footprint is 10 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide each). If
everyone in the world adopted this rate of pollution (a principle
often referred to as ‘contraction and convergence’), the level of
Carbon Dioxide in the air should stabilise at a doubling of the level
before the industrial revolution.
However, there are other gases which warm the planet, such as Methane.
Including these, and making a rough estimate of the political lags,
compromise, and slippage inevitable in global politics, the total
effect is likely to be close to triple the pre-industrial level. The
rise in global temperatures would then be as much as 4 or 5 degrees.
With only 3 degrees of climate change, the Amazon Rainforest would dry
out, die and burn, releasing huge quantities of Carbon Dioxide into
the atmosphere. The frozen bogs of Siberia are already starting to
melt and this process would accelerate at releasing huge quantities of
Methane into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent
than Carbon Dioxide.
With a rise of 4 or 5 degrees – double that at the poles – we threaten
to awake the ‘sleeping giant’, huge quantities methane trapped in a
cage of ice on the Arctic ocean floor, accelerating global warming to
a destructive crescendo.
Greenhouse gas concentrations could then reach four times
pre-industrial levels, and the world would warm by at least 6 degrees,
a level well understood to be effectively fatal for human civilisation
and the natural world.
We have seen carbon emissions on this sort of scale before: at the end
of the Permian era methane releases were probably triggered by a
super-volcano in an already warmed world. Life nearly died. The oceans
turned anoxic- lacking oxygen and effectively dead – and only one
major land animal survived. 95% of species were made extinct.
The Climate Bill needs to be stronger and consistent with avoiding
catastrophe. This means that we must have a good chance of avoiding 2C
of warming adopted by the EU, if other countries converge to similar
levels. As the Tyndall Centre have argued, we need a 90% reduction in
greenhouse gas emissions. Most – if not all- of this reduction can and
must be achieved by 2030. Only then will our children inherit a world
without the imminent threat of global destruction.
Anderson K., Bows A., (2007) A response to the Draft Climate Change Bill’s carbon reduction targets: Tyndall Centre Briefing Note 17: http://tyndall.webapp1.uea.ac.uk/publications/briefing_notes/bn17.pdf
Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006) http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_climate_change/sternreview_index.cfm