Although Captain Scott and his crew ventured into unmapped territory with the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, theirs wasn’t an aimless wanderlust. The scientific programme was ambitious and phenomenally fruitful: the Discovery expedition alone gave reams of scientific data and analysis that were published in six volumes, running to hundreds of pages each. The findings spanned meteorology, magnetology, ecology, physiology and atmospheric chemistry. The data gives calibration points for longitudinal studies, for example into climate change. This week, I’ve spoken with Tony Grayling, Head of Climate Change and Sustainable Communities for the Environment Agency (EA). Here’s the first half of the interview:
What’s the ‘best case scenario’ for climate change?
That the average global temperature rise peaks at 2°C above the pre-industrial average. This would still not be great. There’s significant climate change that we can see with just a 1°C rise above the pre-industrial era average: too much water (storminess) in some places and too little in others (affecting agricultural production), but overall deleterious effects on human society due to water shortages and impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity. We’re seeing loss of whole species and the endangering of complete ecosystems. But this is nothing compared with letting climate change go unchecked to an increase of 4.5°C above pre-industrial averages – there we would see severe agricultural trouble, water stress and possible collapse of whole ecosystems. We can already see danger hitting the Amazon and warm water coral reefs, our two most biodiverse habitats.
Carrot or stick?
We need both. This is not a problem that is going to be addressed purely by voluntary action. We need regulation and incentives. Global problems require international cooperation and legally binding international agreements, e.g. for global emission checks. We need for carbon emissions to peak in the next decade and then to reduce by half by 2050 globally – a tall order. The distribution of effort needs to be fair, so wealthier countries with higher emissions per capita and more wherewithal to do something about it should reduce their emissions the most. Poorer countries have a right to emit. The Environment Agency are a regulator of government policy, but do not create policy. There’s a need to reward both right technologies and behaviours. Collective action is needed on a level playing field. Technological solutions are going to play a vital role because I cannot see how you’re going to persuade people who are used to a level of material prosperity to just give it up. So we need technologies that can enable people to enjoy benefits they’re used to without greenhouse emissions – core is converting energy generation from fossil fuel base and moving towards low carbon electricity generation, e.g. with carbon catch storage. There are alternative pathways. We can decarbonise electricity generation then convert surface transport to an electricity base and heating to an electricity base. There’s biomass for heat pumps. A whole range.
Melting iceberg on the Ross Sea. Picture credit: Mila Zinkova, Fogshadow
Do you consider knowledge transfer and the distribution of UK insight as tools to combat climate change? If so, how does the EA support this?
Well, this problem is fundamentally at the international scale. Wealthier nations historically are more responsible and have the capacity to do something about it. They do have a responsibility to transfer knowledge to less industrialised countries who will need to take a different path to development. We’ll all need to adapt to inertia in the global energy system, that is we have already stored up an amount of climate change that we’ll have to adapt to. The most vulnerable are usually the poorest and the least able to adapt. We also need large financial transfers, e.g. direct aid and creation of global carbon markets. Wealthy nations could pay for pollution rights and the money would go to poorer countries to adapt.