By Hannah K. Strange
UPI U.K. Correspondent
LONDON, Sept. 7 (UPI) – Efforts to expand renewable energy generation will not prevent climate change, the head of one of Britain’s leading scientific societies has warned. Frances Cairncross said world leaders needed to face up to the reality of climate change and focus on adaptation rather than mitigation.
In comments that will lend succor to U.S. arguments against the Kyoto Protocol, Cairncross, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, said that the international treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions was “largely ineffectual.”
Climate change was, to an extent, an inevitability that the world would have to learn to live with, she told the association’s Festival of Science at the University of East Anglia Monday, attended by more than 300 of the country’s leading scientists and engineers.
Emissions would have to be cut by 60 percent to stop levels of the gases responsible for climate change increasing, she said, adding: “That’s simply not going to happen.”
All the known sources of renewable energy combined could only supply 2 percent of world electricity consumption at present, she maintained. Meanwhile, coal accounted for 40 percent of all electricity generated.
“Even if our electricity from renewables rose tenfold we would still be generating half as much electricity from that source as we do from coal,” she added.
In a commentary for the Independent newspaper Tuesday, Cairncross continued to question the viability of attempts to reduce world energy consumption. A “particularly intractable” issue was the extent to which people would be willing to alter their lifestyles for the benefit of future generations, she wrote.
“Just reflect on the fact that oil today costs more than $70 a barrel – the equivalent of a tax that no politician would have dared to suggest when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated – and yet our roads are still crammed with cars and our skies with planes.”
And, while the costs of climate change would be huge, the costs of taking action to avert it would undoubtedly be enormous, she argued.
Cairncross said even with the best of intentions, the fact was the world simply did not yet have the technology to prevent global warming. She cited a recent study by the International Energy Agency which concluded that even rapid introduction of energy efficiency measures and substitutes for fossil fuels would not be enough to prevent the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases from continuing to rise.
Some places might actually benefit from global warming, she argued. “If swathes of Arctic ice melts, it will be easier to extract the oil and gas reserves – perhaps one-quarter of the world’s remaining buried stocks, much of them on Russian territory.” This meant it could be difficult to persuade Russia or other world powers to sign up to a stricter global emissions treaty, she suggested.
“The trouble is, our living standards are inextricably related to our use of energy, and especially to fossil fuel,” Cairncross noted. While it was possible to increase energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar power, these currently only provided a tiny fraction of world energy generation, as opposed to coal, which would dominate for the foreseeable future. While carbon capture and storage that could reduce the harmful emissions from coal is going to be essential, the technology had hardly begun to be used commercially, she said.
While energy efficiency would ultimately be key to the reduction of emissions, lag times on the commercial deployment of technology were long, she said, pointing out that many of the technologies in use today were invented a century ago.
Cairncross’s argument will bolster those in the United States who contest that the economic and lifestyle sacrifices necessary to tackle climate change are too great a price to pay. President George W. Bush declined to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in part due to concerns over the economic effects of binding emissions targets, and has argued that it is unrealistic to expect people to eschew the trappings of modern life, a position that British Prime Minister Tony Blair appears to have come round to in recent times.
But while Cairncross insists she is not advocating the abandonment of efforts to tackle climate change, some experts claim her argument is misconceived.
Peter Smith, special professor of sustainable energy at the University of Nottingham, said he agreed with Cairncross’s argument “up to a point.” He said at the festival that while certain consequences of climate change were inevitable because of momentum already in the system, touting “a doctrine of despair” would make people think there was no point in trying. Many countries, particularly Britain, had plentiful renewable energy resources, he noted.
Some environmentalists argue that Cairncross is being overly pessimistic about the potential of renewable energy. In Britain, for example, the British Wind Energy Association estimates that wave power alone could supply 20 percent of the country’s energy needs with the necessary investment. Neither has Cairncross made any mention of the impact of nuclear power, which many developed nations are now eyeing with renewed interest.
But many scientists agree that some climate change is now inevitable. Cairncross’s warning came as researchers from the British Antarctic Survey presented an ice core study showing that current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are now higher than at any time in the past 800,000 years and increasing at an unprecedented rate.
Presenting the study at the festival, the BAS scientists said the core showed there had been eight cycles of atmospheric change in that time frame when greenhouse gases peaked, and each had been accompanied by warming in the climate.
But the current peak levels are far above anything seen in the past and the rate of change is alarming, the scientists said.
Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary Chris Huhne said the ice core study showed that more – not less – action was needed to combat climate change.
“Recent scientific findings are increasingly worrying,” he said. “We need to act quickly if we are to stabilize carbon dioxide at even double its pre-industrial level.”
It was time to start talking about how to limit fossil fuel use through tax-driven changes of behavior, he suggested.
But that is a move for which governments on both sides of the Atlantic have little appetite.
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