Edinburgh University Business School is running a series of seminars covering different aspects of climate change: so far, they have had a politician and a campaigner give talks; coming up in the new year will be a business perspective – and then a seminar featuring each of the speakers debating together. The focus of the talks is the background to climate change, the Kyoto protocol of 1997 and the forthcoming discussions at Poznan in December 2008 and Copenhagen in December 2009.
First up was Nigel Griffiths MP. A former minister and the current MP for South Edinburgh, Nigel’s talk was interesting, but I am not exactly sure that he said much: it was all very measured and – dare I say it – political: he didn’t stick his neck out, and at times he tried to score points off the Greens and the LibDems whilst praising the Labour administration for bringing the Climate Change Act 2008 to Parliament – it became law yesterday. This aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050, and carbon emissions by 26% of 1990 levels by 2020. (Scotland has its own, similar, Climate Change Bill which is passing through the Scottish Parliament.)
Nigel raised lots of political issues that need to be dealt with – how inter-governmental agreements can be enforced, what are we going to do for energy in the future (he was pro renewables and anti nuclear). But he seemed to believe that we need to maintain economic growth, whilst some people seemed to think we need to completely rethink what economic growth actually means – and whether the planet can afford further growth.
The second speaker in the series was much more hard-hitting and less complacent. And very, very scary. Richard Dixon is the head of WWF Scotland, and has worked as a campaigner on climate change in Scotland for a long while; he also has a couple of science degrees – so he was knowledgeable about the background to climate change, too.
He was critical of much of the current debate – the exclusion of emissions from aircraft and shipping from the baseline for greenhouse gases, for instance. He was complimentary of the UK and Scottish governments efforts, reckoning the UK was ahead of the rest of Europe (although from a worse starting point – he argued that a large proportion of the gases that have got us to where we are now originated from the industrial revolution – and since that started in the UK, we were largely responsible). He thought the Scottish government’s targets for using renewable energy sources and other Scottish business practices were very positive.
But he wasn’t particularly hopeful, either. He reckoned the best we could hope for was stabilising the climate c. 2020 at 2°C over average pre-industrial temperatures – and he was concerned we might miss the target; at 3°C over, the Amazon rainforest would die, the Greenland icesheet would melt and millions of people would have to move. At 4°C over, he predicted mass extinctions and unstoppable positive feedback as the permafrost melted and released CO2 and methane into the atmosphere.
Indeed, he was worried that we may already have missed the 2020 target, in that we might have passed a tipping point we didn’t even know existed, and that all our efforts would come to naught.
He gave some economic arguments why governments and individuals should be taking action now. For instance, he showed a graph from an insurance company that indicated that by 2056, the losses due to climate change would be greater than world GDP – a pretty scary statistic.
He also focused on what different sectors could do. For instance, he thought governments could do – just think of the speed with which governments can mobilise their resources at time of war. (Dixon was speaking before the recent intervention by governments to prop up banks and the financial system, but one might think that they could spend a few billion dollars now to save the world as well as the banks.) When the economic incentives became great enough, businesses were good at innovating – and innovation on some of the issues around climate change could make a big difference. Individuals were also affected by economics: the rise in the price of petrol in the summer had changed people’s behaviour. (The subsequent fall in the oil price might be good for the economy, but not so good for the environment – although in the UK at least, the fall of sterling against the dollar has meant that petrol prices arenot falling as quickly as they otherwise might.)
All in all, though it was a frightening talk – much more so than Griffith’s. At the times, the audience laughed at how serious the situation was: because one could only laugh or cry.