‘‘Climate change is the pre-eminent geopolitical and economic issue of the 21st century. It rewrites the global equation for development, peace and prosperity.” Those were the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when he addressed a meeting in New York in September.
Indeed, without decisive action from the world community, we could soon see millions of people flooded as melting ice sheets lead to rising sea levels, hunger become more prevalent as crop yields fall around the world, and the death of millions of sea creatures that provide another source of food for the human population.
It’s little wonder, then, that the eyes of the world immediately shifted to the Danish capital, Copenhagen, as ministers and officials from 192 countries prepared for December’s critical meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The Copenhagen conference is set to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build on the environment goals set out in the Kyoto Protocol and draw up a binding agreement that would require developed countries, including the US, to cut their emissions by between 10 per cent and 40 per cent by 2020.
The aim is to achieve, in the Secretary General’s words, “an equitable, scientifically robust deal that strengthens sustainable development and powers green growth for every country”.
Scientists are becoming increasingly aware of the true implications of doing nothing. Dr Richard Harding is a climate modeller from the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and leader of the Integrated Project Water and Global Change (WATCH), a ￡7 million EU-funded climate change and water cycle programme.
He and his colleagues work with the Hadley Centre, the UK’s foremost climate change research centre, to advise the Departmentof Energy and Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Harding spoke at the previous UNFCCC meetings in Nairobi and Bali and will do so again at Copenhagen, addressing the scientific delegates. “The prime objective is to not exceed a 2˚C rise in global temperatures by 2100,” he says. “Yet in the past 50 years alone, there has been a 0.8˚C rise.
“In order to achieve this goal, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere needs to be restricted to 450 parts per million. To put this into context, pre-industrial levels dating from 1880 are estimated to have been 280 parts per million, while current levels are approximately 385.”
Cutting CO2 emissions to reach this target is made more difficult by the fact that China’s emissions are only due to peak sometime between 2030 and 2040. Harding continues: “The business-as-usual approach, where no agreement is reached at Copenhagen and carbon emissions are not controlled, will see a 4 to 6˚C rise in global temperatures. This needs to be avoided at all costs.”
These temperature changes would have a direct impact on health, leading to more viable mosquito colonies in the northern hemisphere and increased diseases. The heat could lead to a substantial loss of life.
“During the 2003 heatwave, 30,000 people died in France as a direct result of the temperature,” says Harding. “While such events are quite rare now, they would become more frequent in a heated climate.”
According to IPCC research, existing dry areas, such as North Africa, midwest America, the Mediterranean, South Africa and Australia, would be among the hardest hit by the increased temperatures. Their current levels of water scarcity would be exacerbated, with huge implications for crop productivity and food production. All over the world, there would be an increase in storm activity, resulting in more dramatic rainfall and more intense hurricanes in such countries such as Japan, China and the US.
Rising global temperatures will also have a major impact on ecosystems. Ocean acidification and its implications are only now beginning to be understood.
“At present, of the eight gigatonnes of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere each year, 50 per cent dissolves into the world’s oceans,” Harding explains. “As a result, carbolic acid forms, and this has already increased the pH of the oceans by 0.1 units.”
Sea creatures such as Zooplankton, which are found across the globe and use calcium carbonate to build their bodies, will struggle as the oceans become more acidic. As their numbers dwindle and the growth of coral reefs is impeded by increased ocean acidity, there will be an ecological cascade effect along the food chain. Fish, shellfish and other organisms that we depend on as food supply sources will be affected, directly or indirectly, as their sources of food are reduced.
Meanwhile, uncertainty surrounds further rises in sea levels, but there are some worrying trends appearing. Not only have they risen by 20cm in the past century, but there is also growing evidence that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting faster than first predicted. Glaciers are also increasingly unstable, with the consensus among glaciologists that there will be a one metre rise in sea levels.
This would see large areas of coastal inundation, and many millions more people are projected to be flooded every year due to sea-level rises by the 2080s. The numbers affected will be largest in the mega-deltas of Asia and Africa, while small islands are vulnerable.
As if world leaders were not already well aware of the stakes involved and the science that backs them up, Ban Ki-moon spelt them out all too clearly in New York. “Failure to reach a broad agreement in Copenhagen,” he said, “would be morally inexcusable, economically short-sighted and politically unwise… History may not offer us a better chance.” Or, indeed, another chance. ■