Guest blog – Climate action: Never let a good crisis go to waste by Nick Molho

Nick Molho PictureNick has been with WWF-UK since 2010 and heads up their climate change and energy policy work. Prior to joining WWF, Nick spent 6 years with city law firm CMS Cameron McKenna, working as an  energy solicitor on a wide range of energy projects and climate change related issues. Nick has a First Class English Law and German Law degree from the University of Kent, where he specialised in Environmental Law and in particular on the viability of emission trading schemes as a tool to tackling climate change. You can follow Nick on twitter on @NickMolho.

The publication later in September of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change marks the start of a significant series of milestones over the next two years that will give the world a chance to prevent the worse impacts of climate change. The international community, aided by key countries like the UK, must seize this opportunity says Nick Molho.

The publication on 27 September of the first of a series of four reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be a major event.  It will of course be significant in that it will provide the latest in-depth scientific review of our understanding of climate change, with the series of reports covering some 3,000 pages and involving well over 800 authors.

However, it’s fair to say that the environmental and economic case for urgently tackling climate change has already compellingly been made in recent reports from a range of major international organisations such as the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and the United Nations Environment Programme.  In a nutshell, these organisations recently concluded that while many (but certainly not all) of the worst projected impacts of climate change could still be avoided by holding global average temperature rises to below 2ºCelsius compared to pre-industrial levels, the world is currently on track for a warming far in excess of that threshold over the course of this century.

They further warned that the projected levels of warming were likely to severely undermine the provision of so-called “ecosystem services” from the natural world (on which the world economy is very dependent) and risked disproportionately impacting “many of the world’s poorest regions, which have the least economic, institutional, scientific and technical capacity to cope and adapt” (World Bank).  And for an organisation like WWF, unmitigated climate change threatens to undermine much of the conservation work that we have carried out over the last 50 years.

While it is still possible to prevent temperature increases in excess of 2ºCelsius, the window of opportunity for doing so must be rapidly seized.  Importantly, these reports make clear that the longer we delay action to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, the more expensive tackling climate change will become.  In the words of the International Energy Agency, “delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”    

So, what is arguably more significant about the publication of the IPPC report is that it will mark the start of a series of political events over the next two years at the national, European and international level, which provides an important opportunity to prevent global average temperatures rising by more than 2ºCelsius.

In the UK for instance, the Committee on Climate Change is currently reviewing its advice on the speed at which the UK needs to reduce its emissions in the 2020s to stay on track for meeting its legally binding goal of reducing emissions by at least 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.  The Committee’s revised advice is expected in December this year and the Government will be making a decision on whether or not to adopt this advice in spring 2014.  As the country that was the first in the world to enact binding climate change legislation and that has inspired the development of similar legislation elsewhere such as in Mexico, it will be vital for the UK to be seen to take its Climate Change Act commitments seriously.

Discussions have also started on a future package of legislation that will contain the EU’s climate and clean energy objectives for 2030. While it may take a few years for this package to be finalised, EU leaders will soon have to agree on an emission reduction goal for 2030 that they can put on the table at the international climate change talks in 2015.  Anything less than a proposed 50% cut by 2030 compared to 1990 levels (the highest figure currently being pushed by the UK Government) would look woefully inadequate to tackle the climate crisis and unlikely to get other major players such as the United States and China to put ambitious figures on the table.

At the international level, there is of course the international climate change talks taking place in Paris in 2015 (just months after an equally important international development summit), seen as the best chance of getting a global deal to tackle greenhouse gas emissions in the 2020s.  Importantly, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon is likely to host a climate change summit in September 2014 to help boost ambition in the run-up to the 2015 talks.  Beyond the adequacy of the EU’s commitments, this early summit will help test whether the positive rhetoric on climate change from other major emitters such as China and the United States can indeed translate into emission reduction pledges that are in line with the urgency of action called for by the scientific community.  

This upcoming window of opportunity and sequence of events provides the international community with a real chance of preventing the worse impacts of climate change and tackling emissions cost-effectively.  It could also provide significant growth opportunities for those countries that make an early and decisive move towards a low-carbon economy – the UK with its expertise and research capabilities in areas such as offshore wind, wave & tidal power, carbon capture & storage and electric cars, could be a case in point.

For the international community to seize this opportunity, key countries around the globe – including the UK – must support a political race to the top, by pro-actively backing strong action to reduce emissions both domestically and internationally.  Hoping for the best at the international climate change talks in 2015 and adopting a “wait and see” approach until then is simply not an option.

You can follow Nick on twitter on @NickMolho     

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30 Replies to “Guest blog – Climate action: Never let a good crisis go to waste by Nick Molho”

  1. "It could also provide significant growth opportunities for those countries that make an early and decisive move towards a low-carbon economy – the UK with its expertise and research capabilities in areas such as offshore wind, wave & tidal power, carbon capture & storage and electric cars, could be a case in point".

    Realistically we need to attack the demand side of the problem too and can't just rely on renewable energy providing a 'get out of jail free' card (not that I think you are suggesting that). In the public housing sector good progress has been made by many local authorities in bringing insulation levels up to a decent standard but there is more to be done (especially in hard to treat properties) and I believe the private rental sector lags behind. In industry too there is considerable scope to improve energy efficiency in areas such as compressed air, electric motors, lighting, heat recovery and so on.

    All of these measures have the benefit of reducing running costs so there are good reasons for doing them anyway, irrespective of any climate change arguments. However, we will also need to consider less palatable demand management measures such as making the financial cost of travel and of meat production more closely reflect the environmental costs.

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    1. "making the financial cost of ... meat production more closely reflect the environmental costs."

      Which has been misrepresented by the UN 2006 report "Livestock's Long Shadow" and requoted ad nauseam as fact - despite the admissions of the errors by FAO.
      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/7509978/UN-admits-flaw-in-report-on-meat-and-climate-change.html
      Simon Fairlie has a better grip on reality: http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2024133,00.html
      His book is worth reading

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      1. The Simon Fairlie interview you link to does nevertheless argue for a halving of the amount of meat we eat.
        I haven't argued for a complete ban on eating meat (I am not a vegetarian) but meat consumption at modern levels undeniably has a wide range of harmful impacts including water pollution from slurry run-off, emissions of methane, ammonia and foul odours (try traveling through the next village from where my parents live!), clearance of rain forest (I know it is not the only cause of that), hoovering up of sand-eels for animal feed, amongst others. The FAO, I believe, acknowledged that the comparison with global transport was flawed but did not retract the view that meat consumption is a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas concentrations.

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        1. Almost everything that we do has an impact in terms of emissions or potential pollution. Good management of livestock wastes prevents three of the four aspects you mention - methane production is more problematic, if we insist on relying on ruminants for our red meat. There might be problems with milking wallabies, kangaroos and Guinea pigs.
          Anyone who wants seriously to affect anthropogenic methane emissions should consider what to do about the billions of human methane emitters, paddy rice production, natural wetlands and rewetting previously drained wetlands. And put and end to air travel, pointless journeys to gawp at stuff, international climate conferences, the Olympics, horse racing and all stadium sports, Glastonbury, hot air ballooning, the clearing of forests for the cultivation of oil palm or soya beans, long distance commuting, felling North Carolina to supply Drax - in fact, anything that isn't essential. Until then, essential stuff like the provision of food , water, heat and shelter should be ring-fenced from the interference of climastrologists and their fellow travellers.

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          1. Filbert, you want to ring fence essential stuff like the provision of food, heat and water but your list of inessential stuff includes various examples that fall into the category of provision of food and heat: felling North Carolina to supply Drax, cultivation of oil palm and cultivation of soya. Isn't life complicated? We need heat and food but also need to ensure that their provision causes as little environmental harm as possible. I reiterate that I am not personally advocating that we give up meat entirely but there are various good reasons including the associated greenhouse gas emissions for eating less of the stuff than we do on average.
            I acknowledge that livestock wastes can be managed effectively to minimise some of the issues I referred to but I don't believe this is always achieved and certainly not in all meat producing countries (I am assuming we are not only concerned about The UK's green and pleasant land).

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  2. The only carbon capture that works is in trees so why are we so slow in taking large areas of land and planting it up! Is it because big institutions can't make money from it!! As for wind we need to place wind farms by large areas of population not out in the countryside or at sea. As for natural global warming [effect of the last ice age] we must start to enjoy it.

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  3. In other words we need a low carbon lifestyle

    Which means making changes

    Not piecemeal changes that make us feel better while achieving very little, like getting a green energy supplier - rather it means using much less energy. And not like getting an expensive hybrid car - it means walking, cycling or using public transport. And not like eating organic meat, it means greatly reducing - or cutting out - meat.

    http://mahb.stanford.edu/consensus-statement-from-global-scientists/

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    1. Steve - and it means electing politicians who will take the decisions that individuals cannot make on their own that make it easier for individuals to make those choices.

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  4. Nick, I contacted the WWF recently regarding a local wildlife issue, i.e., someone is introducing butterflies on to local nature reserves. This means that any future records will be invalid as we will not know if the species found are from extant populations or introductions. WWF told me they do not get involved with UK wildlife, only foreign issues. WWF advised me to contact defra.

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  5. For another view of the upcoming IPCC report see http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/08/31/can-the-ipcc-do-revolutionary-science/.

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  6. We are currently living in a period when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at its lowest point for 300 million years.

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  7. There is little evidence that the electorate are prepared to make even the slightest concession on energy consumption. I once laboriously negotiated a reduction in thermostat setting of a couple of degrees for a large office building with the business user group representing the entire workforce. When initiated all hell broke lose and I discovered that it is an unalienable human right to be able to operate a computer in the Midlands of England in December dressed in a manner which would seem skimpy on a Turkish beach in August.
    It would be very simple to engineer a huge reduction in energy use but no one can suggest it and be electable. I have a radio which if switched off at the plug and not left on the dreaded stand by, instantly forgets all its settings. I cannot buy an energy efficient fridge in the UK, they don't exist. Lorries that deliver bottles go back empty and the Local Authority drives round in other lorries that do 3-4 miles to the gallon collecting the empties, so they can, if your lucky, be melted down and re-made, if they are not all the same colour they go for road surfacing.
    In the 1930's our grandparents switched things on and off, had fuel efficient fridges and re-used bottles but then they did not have the choice to do anything else. There is little evidence that, as a species, Homo sapiens, given a choice, will select sustainability over convenience.
    I'm sorry to be a bit gloomy but I think there is a fair chance we've had it.

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    1. You have a 'guid conceit' of yourself, Ian. And part of the backdrop for it is a melodramatic view of doomed humanity failing to listen to voices such as yours. We have an abundance of relatively affordable energy, and we should enjoy it. Just as the office workers you lampoon would like to enjoy working in light and comfortable clothes. I wish some of that 'all hell broke [loose]' would happen every time someone successfully pushed what they deemed 'sustainable' on to everyone else against their wishes and their interests. The windsubsidy farms would be left to rot since the subsidies would soon cease, and we'd see no more of them being imposed upon us. The shocking waste of farmland to produce bio-fuels would be declared even by the BBC to be immoral and intolerable. The scaremongering over carbon dioxide would get short-shrift everywhere people valued careful science and good data. The re-cycling mirage would be exposed wherever and whenever it was found that the promised recycling was not actually taking place. Eco-drama queens everywhere would be laughed off the stages upon which they so dearly want to be. And good old humanity would have a little bit more freedom and opportunity to do what it has done so well thanks to affordable energy supplies: make progress to an even better world in which more people have the chance to live decent lives, and in which air and water and food keep improving in quality.

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    1. Cat - I choose this one and it doesn't show that at all http://www.biocab.org/carbon_dioxide_geological_timescale.html

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  8. I think that the graph does show low carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration compared to past times in our history. there is a tiny uptick in the graph at current times, but that is tiny in the scheme of things.

    Your point is a bit like claiming the particular months when Mona Loa data shows a peak and when it shows a minima, depending on the biological cycle for that hemisphere.

    It is not possible to hold an objective debate if you believe that carbon dioxide measurements today are somehow special, higher than ever before and taking us into unprecedented territory.

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    1. Cat - miaoow! You started it and you were wrong! The graph shows that CO2 levels are not the lowest that they have been for 300 million years.

      At c390ppmv CO2 levels are higher than they have been for over 400,000 years. Are you going to argue with that?

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      1. Anything on a rising trend cannot be at its lowest - you don't need a graph to tell you that.
        Thanks for the link to it, though but. It shows that for ~475 of the ~564 million years - about 85% of time back to the start of the Cambrian, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was higher, often much, higher than today. We didn't do it.

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        1. filbert - I don't, Schrodinger's Cat apparently does.

          Because we didn't do it then, doesn't mean we aren't doing it now. Most seem to agree that we are doing it now.

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          1. Also worth noting on this graph is that once you rescale your x-axis so that it represents a constant time-scale, then you'll notice that the rate of change in the previous couple of hundred of years is unprecedented. Similar growths in for example the Jurrasic period happened over 5 Million years or more, roughly the length of time since the common Human-Chimpanzee ancestor not the life span of a Giant Tortoise. Put simply too many animals are unable to evolve quickly enough to survive such a radical environmental change.

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          2. Mark, even somebody like me (with one remaining brain cell) can work out that if you dig up and burn the carbon that has been buried over the course of aeons and at the same time deplete the "sinks" (forests and continental shelves) that rebury it then you risk increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

            Try explaining that to Delingpole and his acolytes! I did once, never again, not clever enough.

            The new reports will need to be translated into something that "ordinary" people can easily digest otherwise Delingpole and the Lawsons will continue to win.

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  9. The (mass) debate re. Climate change ended some time ago.
    Global warming is being dangerously anthropogenically accelerated.
    End of.

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