Countdown to global catastrophe
report warns point of no return may be reached in 10 years,
to droughts, agricultural failure and water shortages
By Michael McCarthy,
The Independent (UK)
24 January 2005
The global warming danger threshold for
the world is clearly marked for the first time in an international
report to be published tomorrow - and the bad news is, the world has
nearly reached it already.
The countdown to
climate-change catastrophe is spelt out by a task force of senior
politicians, business leaders and academics from around the world -
and it is remarkably brief. In as little as 10 years, or even less,
their report indicates, the point of no return with global warming
may have been reached.
The report, Meeting The
Climate Challenge, is aimed at policymakers in every country,
from national leaders down. It has been timed to coincide with Tony
Blair's promised efforts to advance climate change policy in 2005 as
chairman of both the G8 group of rich countries and the European
And it breaks new ground
by putting a figure - for the first time in such a high-level
document - on the danger point of global warming, that is, the
temperature rise beyond which the world would be irretrievably
committed to disastrous changes. These could include widespread
agricultural failure, water shortages and major droughts, increased
disease, sea-level rise and the death of forests - with the added
possibility of abrupt catastrophic events such as "runaway" global
warming, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, or the
switching-off of the Gulf Stream.
The report says this point
will be two degrees centigrade above the average world temperature
prevailing in 1750 before the industrial revolution, when human
activities - mainly the production of waste gases such as carbon
dioxide (CO2), which retain the sun's heat in the atmosphere - first
started to affect the climate. But it points out that global average
temperature has already risen by 0.8 degrees since then, with more
rises already in the pipeline - so the world has little more than a
single degree of temperature latitude before the crucial point is
More ominously still, it
assesses the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere after
which the two-degree rise will become inevitable, and says it will
be 400 parts per million by volume (ppm) of CO2.
The current level is
379ppm, and rising by more than 2ppm annually - so it is likely that
the vital 400ppm threshold will be crossed in just 10 years' time,
or even less (although the two-degree temperature rise might take
longer to come into effect).
"There is an ecological
timebomb ticking away," said Stephen Byers, the former transport
secretary, who co-chaired the task force that produced the report
with the US Republican senator Olympia Snowe. It was assembled by
the Institute for Public Policy Research in the UK, the Centre for
American Progress in the US, and The Australia Institute.The group's
chief scientific adviser is Dr Rakendra Pachauri, chairman of the
UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The report urges all the
G8 countries to agree to generate a quarter of their electricity
from renewable sources by 2025, and to double their research
spending on low-carbon energy technologies by 2010. It also calls on
the G8 to form a climate group with leading developing nations such
as India and China, which have big and growing CO2 emissions.
"What this underscores is
that it's what we invest in now and in the next 20 years that will
deliver a stable climate, not what we do in the middle of the
century or later," said Tom Burke, a former government adviser on
green issues who now advises business.
The report starkly spells
out the likely consequences of exceeding the threshold. "Beyond the
2 degrees C level, the risks to human societies and ecosystems grow
significantly," it says.
"It is likely, for
example, that average-temperature increases larger than this will
entail substantial agricultural losses, greatly increased numbers of
people at risk of water shortages, and widespread adverse health
impacts. [They] could also imperil a very high proportion of the
world's coral reefs and cause irreversible damage to important
terrestrial ecosystems, including the Amazon rainforest."
It goes on: "Above the 2
degrees level, the risks of abrupt, accelerated, or runaway climate
change also increase. The possibilities include reaching climatic
tipping points leading, for example, to the loss of the West
Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets (which, between them, could raise
sea level more than 10 metres over the space of a few centuries),
the shutdown of the thermohaline ocean circulation (and, with it,
the Gulf Stream), and the transformation of the planet's forests and
soils from a net sink of carbon to a net source of carbon."