Policies that could cost millions of lives
RICH NATIONS: Seeking to cut climate change have this in common: they
lie. You won't find this statement in the draft of the new report by the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But as soon as you understand
the numbers, the words form before your eyes.
The governments making genuine efforts to tackle global warming are
using figures they know to be false.
The British Government, the European Union, and the United Nations
all claim to be trying to prevent "dangerous" climate change.
Any level of climate change is dangerous for someone, but there is a
broad consensus about what this word means: two degrees of warming above
It is dangerous because of its direct impacts on people and places
(it could, for example, trigger the irreversible melting of the
Greenland ice sheet and the collapse of the Amazon rainforest) and
because it is likely to stimulate further warming, as it encourages the
world's natural systems to start releasing greenhouse gases.
The aim of preventing more than 2 degrees Celsius of warming has been
adopted overtly by the U.N. and the EU, and implicitly by the British,
German, and Swedish governments.
All of them say they are hoping to confine the concentrations of
greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to a level that would prevent such a
And all of them know that they have set the wrong targets, based on
outdated science. Fearful of the political implications, they have
failed to adjust to the levels the new research demands.
Complex statistics This isn't easy to follow, but please bear with
me, as you cannot understand the world's most important issue without
grappling with some numbers. The average global temperature is affected
by the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
This concentration is usually expressed as "carbon dioxide
equivalent." It is not an exact science, you cannot say that a certain
concentration of gases will lead to a precise increase in temperature,
but scientists discuss the relationship in terms of probability.
A paper published last year by climatologist Malte Meinshausen
suggests that if greenhouse gases reach a concentration of 550 parts per
million carbon dioxide equivalent, there is a 63-99 per cent chance
(with an average value of 82 per cent) that global warming will exceed
At 475 parts per million (ppm) the average likelihood is 64 per cent.
Only if concentrations are stabilised at 400 parts or below is there a
low chance (an average of 28 per cent) that temperatures will rise by
more than two degrees.
The IPCC's draft report contains similar figures. A concentration of
510 ppm gives us a 33 per cent chance of preventing more than two
degrees of warming. A concentration of 590 ppm gives us a 10 per cent
You begin to understand the scale of the challenge when you discover
that the current level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (using the
IPCC's formula) is 459 ppm. We have already exceeded the safe level.
To give ourselves a high chance of preventing dangerous climate
change, we will need a programme so drastic that greenhouse gases in the
atmosphere end up below the current concentrations.
The sooner this happens, the greater the chance of preventing two
degrees of warming. But no government has set itself this task.
The EU and the Swedish government have established the world's most
stringent target. It is 550 ppm, which gives us a near certainty of an
extra 2 degrees C. The British Government makes use of a clever
Its target is also "550 parts per million," but 550 parts of carbon
dioxide alone. When you include the other greenhouse gases, this
translates into 666 ppm, carbon dioxide equivalent (a fitting figure).
According to last autumn's Stern report on the economics of climate
change, at 650 ppm there is a 60-95 per cent chance of 3 degrees C of
The government's target, in other words, commits us to a very
dangerous level of climate change. The British Government has been aware
that it has set the wrong target for at least four years.
In 2003 its environment department found that "with an atmospheric
CO2 stabilisation concentration of 550 ppm, temperatures are expected to
rise by between 2 degrees C and 5 degrees C." Last October, I challenged
British Environment Secretary David Miliband over this issue. He
responded as if he had never come across it before.
The EU is also aware that it is using the wrong figures. In 2005 it
found that "to have a reasonable chance to limit global warming to no
more than 2 degrees C, stabilisation of concentrations well below 550
ppm CO2 equivalent may be needed." But its target hasn't changed either.
Embarrassingly for the government, and for left-wingers like me, the
only large political entity in the U.K. that seems able to confront this
is the Conservative party. In a paper published last month, it called
for an atmospheric stabilisation target of 400ppm-450ppm carbon dioxide
equivalent. Will this become policy? In my book Heat, I estimate that to
avoid two degrees of warming we require a global emissions cut of 60 per
cent per capita between now and 2030.
This translates into an 87 per cent cut in the U.K. This is a much
stiffer target than the British Government's, which requires a 60 per
cent cut in the U.K.'s emissions by 2050.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007