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Global Green New Deal needed to save planet

Irish Times, Opinion and Analysis
wednesday, March 18, 2009

FRANK McDONALD

Scientists are no longer mincing their words on the dangers posed by global climate change

LAST WEEK’S international scientific conference in Copenhagen, Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges Decisions, was intended to inform the agenda of next December’s UN summit in the Danish capital and to put pressure on politicians worldwide to deal with the growing threat posed by global warming.

The “key messages” issued by a writing team representing more than 1,600 scientists and other experts are stark. They say recent observations confirm that the “worst-case scenario trajectories” put forward by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just two years ago are already being realised.

For many key parameters – global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification and extreme weather events such as hurricanes and typhoons – “the climate system is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived”. There is also “a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts. Temperature rises above two degrees will be very difficult for contemporary societies to cope with, and will increase the level of climate disruption through the rest of the century.”

According to the scientists, “rapid, sustained and effective” measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “based on co-ordinated global and regional action” is now required to avoid dangerous climate change.

“Weaker targets for 2020 increase the risk of crossing tipping points and make the task of meeting 2050 targets more difficult.”

Noting that the regional impacts of global warming will vary, they say mitigation must be based on “common but differentiated” responsibilities to protect the poor and most vulnerable. An “effective, well-funded adaptation safety net” would also be needed for those least capable of coping with climate change impacts.

Referring obliquely to the current economic recession, they point out that a “wide range of benefits will flow from a concerted effort to alter our energy economy now, including sustainable energy job growth, reductions in the health and economic costs of climate change, and the restoration of ecosystems”, such as tropical rainforests.

“Significant constraints” need to be overcome – such as inertia, implicit or explicit subsidies for fossil fuels and “reducing the influence of vested interests” – while “building on a growing public desire for governments to act on climate change” by showing innovative leadership and engaging society as a whole in the effort.

“There is no excuse for inaction,” the scientists say. “We already have many tools and approaches – economic, technological, behavioural, management – to deal effectively with the climate change challenge. But they must be vigorously and widely implemented to achieve the societal transformation required to decarbonise economies.”

By the end of this year, we will know whether this clarion call for action has been heeded.

The first in a series of major UN negotiating sessions this year, designed to culminate in an ambitious and effective international climate change deal in Copenhagen, will get under way at the end of this month.

“The road to Copenhagen is under intensive construction,” Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said on Monday.

Leading British economist Lord Nicholas Stern – author of an influential economic assessment of global warming, published in 2006 – has described the Copenhagen summit as “the most important gathering since the second World War”, adding: “If we mess up, it will be very difficult to put the pieces back together again.”

Much faith is being placed in US president Barack Obama and his ability to effect change in the US after eight years of inaction and obstruction by George Bush. Obama pledged that the US would work to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 – a goal that might now be achieved as a result of the recession.

Indeed, Cambridge university economist Dr Terry Barker made the startling claim in Copenhagen that the economic downturn could cut carbon emissions worldwide by as much as 40 to 50 per cent if the slump persists for several years. However, recovery would have to be based on a low-carbon future to stop emissions rising again.

What is needed, in essence, is a Green New Deal of the type being promoted by Obama. This would involve investing at least $15 billion (€11.5 billion) a year in securing a “clean energy future” for the US, based on wind and solar power, “next-generation biofuels”, safe nuclear power plants and “clean coal technologies”.

Last week, the US environmental protection agency took a major step towards adopting a new climate policy with proposals for a mandatory greenhouse gas reporting programme, covering some 13,000 power stations, factories and other energy-intensive installations from January 1st next. It is seen as a prelude to imposing caps.

According to Dr Peter Lund of Helsinki University of Technology, worldwide carbon emissions could be cut by 15 per cent if governments were prepared to provide subsidies of between €10 billion and €20 billion a year for renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power – boosting their share of electricity production to 40 per cent.

At present, wind and solar contribute less than 2 per cent of production. “Our findings demonstrate that with global political support and financial investment, previous notions that the potential for renewables was in some way limited to a negligible fraction of world demand were wrong,” Lund said in Copenhagen last week.

Denmark itself is a good example of what can be achieved. After being alarmed by the oil crisis in 1973, the Danes decided to invest heavily in wind power. The development of wind turbines was subsidised to the tune of 30 per cent, producers were given guaranteed prices, and now wind energy provides more than 20 per cent of the country’s electricity.

Way back in 1980, as a cub reporter, I was with the press group that accompanied the late George Colley, then minister for energy, to visit Denmark’s first two experimental wind turbines, built on the west coast of Jutland. Colley and his officials marvelled at them, congratulated the Danes and then flew home – and did nothing.

Denmark went on to develop the most profitable wind industry in the world, earning billions of euro for its economy. It was, and still is, the result of political will.

The current Minister for Energy, Communications and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan, understands that and has set about achieving the EU’s 20 per cent target for renewables by 2020.

Frank McDonald is Environment Editor of The Irish Times






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