Piers Forster: Home truths on fighting climate change

Have your say

THE United Nations released the second in a series of major reports on climate change earlier this week. It focused on how climate change is directly affecting the natural world, our industries and the impact on people here in Yorkshire.

Effective decision-making requires information on the risk of floods, water shortages and food supplies, and the report goes into an impressive level of detail on these risks.

Previously, my physicist’s brain has been somewhat unconvinced by much of the research into risks and vulnerabilities as there is always a subjective element to the analyses. However, by using “big data” to look in detail at systems across the globe, the evidence is now compelling and the effects of climate change will be detrimental over much of the world.

For example, more frequent heatwaves can be expected that will increase death rates. Crop yields are expected to reduce, especially across Asia and Africa. This will lead to food scarcity.

However, things won’t be as bad in the UK. Firstly, the UK may not warm as much as other parts of the world due to a possible compensating cooling effect from movement in the Gulf Stream, the warm water current from the Caribbean. There are also advantages to living in a moderately warmer world, and this is especially true of Yorkshire. Slightly warmer winters would likely lead to increased crop yields, reductions in our heating bills and save lives from cold-related deaths. Yorkshire has even started producing its own wine!

The UK typically has very varied weather from year to year and month to month (just compare the last few winters). It will take a long time for a gradual climate change signal to emerge from this varied background, and it will be 2050 until Yorkshire residents can clearly see the influence of climate change.

However, the effects of climate change are expected to emerge much sooner and be far more devastating across the tropics.

We could choose to ignore the UN report or pick holes in the science. We can also bemoan government inaction at tackling such a serious problem.

But I would argue that Yorkshire, the first part of the world to industrialise, is a major cause of the problem and we should therefore be part of the solution.

The UN report points to the best risk prevention strategy as a combination of adaptation and mitigation, but what does this mean and how can we play our part?

Compare climate change to a train trundling across America. Some way down the track, we are not sure how far, the bridge is out and disaster looms. Do we want to be the ones to sit back and watch the train wreck, or do we want to be the hero?

The more CO2 we emit the faster the train goes. We should be trying to both stop the train (mitigation) and repair the bridge (adaptation). Adaptation can involve developing resilient crop varieties, building flood prevention measures and possibly removing entire populations from low-lying islands.

Stopping the train involves reducing global CO2 emissions. This is harder than it seems. The only global reduction in emissions since records began was the one per cent reduction in 2008 from the global recession.

Emissions recovered the following year, much faster than world economies. This illustrates the scale of the problem; to stop the train we need to decarbonise our global energy supplies by 50 per cent or more by 2050 and we will need every weapon in our arsenal to do this. The decision by Siemens to invest in a wind turbine manufacturing plant in Hull is a great start.

We also desperately need to develop large-scale carbon capture technologies; Yorkshire is well placed to potentially capture the large amount of CO2 from its power stations and bury it in offshore oil and gas fields. We will also need considerable nuclear power.

We are each responsible for around 10 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, roughly the same amount of CO2 as a hectare of forest sequesters.

One of the first things to do to reduce our emissions should be to insulate our draughty houses – this country has one 
of the worst housing stocks in Europe. 
If, rather than pay for the gas, we contracted British Gas to keep our home at 20 degrees, it would be in their interest to make sure that our home was as insulated as possible. Protecting or planting a tree, especially in the rain forest, is also a great way to reduce our carbon footprint.

Piers Forster is professor of physical climate change at the University of Leeds and a Royal Society Wolfson Merit Award Holder.