International greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise:
But many pathways to reduce emissions now available
by Andy Kerr, ECCI Executive Director
Appeared in Scotsman Opinion
There was good and bad news from Berlin at the beginning of this week. The bad news is global emissions of greenhouse gases have risen to unprecedented levels, despite Government efforts globally to reduce human impacts on the global climate. The good news is that we have an increasing number of exciting and affordable options available to reduce emissions, whilst maintaining our high standard of life.
The occasion for the news was the launch of the new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization set up by Governments to help review and translate the published scientific literature on climate change. Depressingly it shows that global emissions grew more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades, to nearly 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.
In this last installment of the IPCC report scientists show that rising global population and wealthier populations are driving higher greenhouse gas emissions. The message from the scientific literature is clear: without swift and strong action, climate change will lead to increasingly damaging and costly impacts on societies around the world. And the longer we delay effective action, the most costly the problem becomes.
The report is a clarion call for clear international leadership and action. It also makes clear that issues of equity, justice and fairness are increasingly important for finding solutions that all countries can agree on.
This is where we need to flip the coin and look at our options. They are considerable.
According to the report, it would be possible, using a wide array of technological measures and changes in behaviour, to minimize the impact of climate change on our global societies. However, only major institutional and technological change will offer a better than even chance of keeping the global climate within thresholds above which increasingly detrimental impacts will occur.
And there is more good news – many of the technologies we need to make this shift already exist. And they are affordable.
As always when it comes to climate change the question of how certain are we about the science and how can we possibly know about the future is quickly raised. Again the message is clear. Science is very good at telling us what can happen in future; it is very bad at predicting what will happen at a particular place and time in the future. So the issue is about understanding and managing risks: risks of doing something now that might cost a lot of money but pays off in the future, or the risk of not doing something now, which becomes hugely costly in future.
For this report, about 1200 scenarios from the scientific literature were analyzed, drawing on scenarios generated by 31 modelling teams around the world. They aimed to explore the economic, technological and institutional assumptions and implications of pathways to reduce emissions. The working group writing the report consisted of 235 authors and 38 review editors from 57 countries, and 180 experts provided additional input as contributing authors. More than 800 experts from around the world reviewed drafts of the report.
Scotland also had their representatives. Prof Pete Smith, Science Director of ClimateXChange, was a Convening Lead Author of the report. He is and will continue to be a key advisor to the Scottish Government on how to develop government policies and practice that support a low carbon economy and help develop long-term solutions.
So what should the Scottish Government – and governments around the world – do?
There is unfortunately no quick fix. We need to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere by reducing emissions from all aspects of our society – energy production and use, transport, buildings, industry, land use, and all other human activity. This will mean making changes to the way in which we produce and use energy (and land) right across everyday life, business and the way we travel.
Scotland has some of the leading targets in the world for reducing emissions. It is widely admired for its efforts at increasing the generation of renewable electricity. But we are also seeing massive efforts from countries like China, who are the biggest investors in renewable energy in the world. This year they will be building more renewable energy generation than exists in the whole of the UK.
But perhaps most importantly, using energy more productively is key. As a society, we waste vast quantities of energy. Yet with the availability of new energy technology, and availability of information, for example through smart phones, we can deliver the outcomes we seek – for warm homes and efficient mobility – with much lower energy use.
So while the challenge is massive and serious, Scottish researchers are at the forefront of providing the evidence for sound government policies to build a low carbon society. The solutions are many and have multiple benefits.