Global warming 'close to tipping point'

Posted: 26 January 2005

Scientists said this week that the world has only about 10 years to prevent global warming rising more than 2 degrees celsius, with massive impacts on human societies and terrestial eco-systems. Their findings coincide with the beginning of an effort by British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to highlight the issue at the G8 meetings and within the European Union, over both of which Britain presides this year. This report by J.R.Pegg is from the Environment News Service.

Time is running out for the world to halt global warming, the International Climate Change Taskforce warned on Monday.

Dramatic efforts are needed in the next decade, the taskforce said, if the world is to avoid the rising sea levels, agricultural losses, increased water shortages and widespread adverse health impacts expected from global warming.

US Senator Olympia Snowe and British MP Stephen Byers. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
US Senator Olympia Snowe and British MP Stephen Byers. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
International Climate Change Taskforce Co-Chairs US Senator Olympia Snowe and British MP Stephen Byers meet in Snowe's Washington office September 14, 2004. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"Our planet is at risk," said Stephen Byers, a British Labour MP who co-chairs the International Taskforce with U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, a Republican. "With climate change, there is an ecological time bomb ticking away, and people are becoming increasingly concerned by the changes and extreme weather events they are already seeing."

Growing risks

The report, Meeting the Climate Challenge, was released simultaneously in London, Washington and Canberra. It urges nations to commit to preventing average global surface temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the average level in 1750 - prior to the Industrial Revolution, when machines and factories fired by fossil fuels began to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Beyond the two degree level "the risks to human societies and ecosystems grow significantly," according to the report.

"Exceeding a global average increase of more than two degrees Celsius could also imperil a very high proportion of the world's coral reefs and cause irreversible damage to important terrestrial ecosystems, including the Amazon rainforest," the report warns. "Above [that level] the risks of abrupt, accelerated, or runaway climate change also increase."

Political ladership

The task is even more daunting, however, because global average temperature has already risen by 0.8 degrees Celsius since 1750 and will continue to increase.

Oil refinery
Oil refinery
Oil refinery in Teesport, England, emits greenhouse gases during the refining process and more emissions enter the atmosphere when the petroleum products are burned for power.Ian Britton/FreeFoto
And the world is very close to the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere - 400 parts per million (ppm) - that will make a two degree Celsius rise inevitable, the report says.

Atmospheric CO2 is rising more than two ppm a year and is already some 380 ppm. This puts atmospheric CO2 on course to exceed 400 ppm within the next decade and the level "could rise far higher under a business-as-usual scenario," according to the International Taskforce report.

In addition, the taskforce noted that atmospheric levels of reflecting and cloud-forming particles, which are partly offsetting greenhouse gas warming today, will continue to decrease in coming decades. "Urgent action is required if we are to win the battle against this problem," said Byers, a former UK transport minister. "That can only happen with strong political leadership."

The 14 member taskforce was created in March 2004 by the British Institute for Public Policy Research, the U.S. based Center for American Progress and the Australia Institute.

Members of the panel include Australian, British, Chinese, French, German, Swiss and U.S. leaders in politics, environment, business and science.

Byers said that the taskforce's recommendations are "practical, realistic but also challenging."

"I appreciate that tackling climate change is politically difficult," said Byers. "First, there is a mismatch between the potentially unpopular decisions that need to be taken now and the benefits that will come in the medium and long term. Secondly, no country acting on its own can resolve the issue. Strong international action is vital."

Australian targets

But the report says the industrialized world - in particular the eight nations of the G8 - must lead the international effort.

The taskforce hopes that UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who will chair this year's meeting of the G8 and has pledged to make climate change a priority, will take heed of their recommendations.

The report calls on Blair to support the creation of a G8-Plus Climate Group to pressure the United States, Australia, China, India and other major economies to take strong action to reduce their emissions.

Australian Environment Minister Senator Ian Campbell has welcomed the report but described the targets recommended as "technologically and economically undeliverable."

The largest Australian environmental organization, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) takes issue with the minister on that point. ACF Executive Director Don Henry said the targets are deliverable despite the minister's pessimism.

"Renewable energy targets have been set by Germany (20 percent by 2020), China (12 per cent by 2020), the EU (21 per cent by 2010), India (10 per cent by 2012) and by several U.S. states including California (20 per cent by 2017)," said Henry.

"By contrast Australia's proportion of renewable energy will decline under current government policies. At present renewable energy makes up 10 per cent of total energy use, and will be around eight per cent by 2020.

Public awareness

The United States, which accounts for more than a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, has rejected calls for mandatory reductions and has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto accord, which sets up mandatory emissions reductions of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, is set to take effect next month.

Thirty industrialized nations have agreed to the treaty, but few believe it will make a serious dent in global emissions.

The taskforce says nations must move forward with a global framework to move beyond Kyoto in 2012 and to ensure that all nations take part in efforts to fight global warming.

"By taking action now and developing a long term climate policy regime we can ensure that the benefits of climate protection are achieved at least cost," the report says.

Nations should also work to inform individuals of the realities of global warming. "Public awareness of climate change, and its solutions, is worryingly low," the report said.

The report argues that all G8 countries should adopt national targets to generate at least 25 percent of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2025 and mandatory cap-and-trade schemes for emissions.

Boosting investment

It calls on the G8 to pursue partnerships to achieve immediate deployment of existing low-carbon energy technologies, including agreements to shift agricultural subsidies from food crops to biofuels and promote sales of highly efficient cars. World leaders need to recognize that global warming "is the single most important long term issue that the planet faces and to discharge their responsibilities to the people they represent by agreeing to concerted international action to tackle climate change," Byers urged.

Other recommendations include financial and technical assistance for developing countries to adapt to climate change and the creation of a leadership coalition of countries to move ahead with reforms to boost investment in climate-friendly energy technologies worldwide.

"This report underscores the critical importance of coming to grips with the issue of global climate change," said taskforce member Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, and a former U.S. Senator from Colorado.

"The taskforce has done something that I do not think anyone else has taken on - it identifies pathways for those nations that are not part of the Kyoto Protocol's commitments, such as the United States and major developing nations, to work together with other nations to aggressively address the threat of climate change, to the benefit of all."

CopyrightEnvironment News Service (ENS) 2005. All Rights Reserved.

Related links:

International Climate Change Taskforce report

Going beyond Bush (Guardian report, 26/01/05)