Paterson misses the point

By Dr Simon Buckle,  Grantham Institute

smoking chimneysOwen Paterson’s remarks on the UK response to climate change miss the point.  I do not disagree with him that the UK decarbonisation strategy should be improved.  In particular, there is a need for a more effective strategy on energy demand.  However, my preferred policy and technology mix would be very different to his and include the acceleration and expansion of the CCS commercial demonstration programme in order to reduce the energy penalty and overall costs of CCS. And without CCS, there is no way responsibly to use the shale gas he wants the UK to produce in the coming decades for electricity generation or in industrial processes, or any other fossil fuels.

However, these are second order issues compared to his call for scrapping the 2050 targets and the suspension of the UK Climate Change Committee.  On current trends, by the end of the century, the surface temperature of our planet is as likely as not to have increased by 4°C relative to pre-industrial conditions.  The present pause in the rise of the global mean surface temperature does not mean we do not need to be concerned.   We are fundamentally changing the climate system, raising the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts on society and the natural systems on which we all depend.

A cost-effective policy to limit these very real climate risks must be based on concerted, co-ordinated and broad-based mitigation action.  This is needed to deliver a substantial and sustained reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions, which continue on a sharply rising trajectory.  The best way to create the conditions for such action by all the major emitting economies – developed and developing, in different measure – is through the UN negotiation process, supplemented by bodies such as (but not confined to) the Major Economies Forum.  The focus of this process is now on achieving a deal covering emissions beyond 2020, due to be finalised at the Paris summit at the end of next year.

There are encouraging signs of progress, e.g. in both the US and China, and the EU is due to agree its own 2030 targets at the end of this month.  But the process is difficult and protracted.  I agree with Paterson that 2050 is not the be all and end all.  I have argued here that the Paris talks should focus on how the next climate agreement can help us collectively to achieve a global peak in emissions before 2030, the first necessary step to any stringent mitigation target, rather than trying to negotiate a deal covering the whole period to 2050.

If Paris is a success, we might then re-assess whether or not the UK’s current mitigation targets are adequate or not.  But we are rapidly running out of time to achieve what the world’s governments profess to be their aim of limiting global warming to at most 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  The longer we delay mitigation action, the more difficult that challenge will be and the more expensive.  At some point soon it will become impossible in practical terms.

Given its leadership on this issue over many decades, UK action to scrap the Climate Change Act and/or suspend or abolish the Climate Change Committee would be severely damaging.  Seeking short-term domestic political advantage – which is what this move appears to be – through recommendations that would undermine national, European and international efforts to limit climate risks is irresponsible.   Sadly, this seems to be what the so-called political “debate” in the UK has been reduced to.

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