Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ninth Report

1  Introduction

Aims of the inquiry

1. In January 2004, Professor Sir David King, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, described climate change as "the most severe problem that we are facing today—more serious even than the threat of terrorism".[1]

  • The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) has increased by over 30% since the industrial revolution as a result of human activity, and is continuing to rise at an unprecedented rate.
  • There was a global average increase in surface temperature of 0.6°C during the 20th century.
  • There is an increasing body of evidence that, over the last half century, most of the warming seen can be attributed to human activity.[2]

2. The Prime Minister has since declared climate change to be one of the two priority issues for the UK's Chair of the G8 and forthcoming Presidency of the EU during 2005.[3] We felt it was timely in these circumstances to undertake a further inquiry into the subject. During this year the review of the UK Climate Change Programme, first compiled in 2000 by the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, is due to be published.

3. The Government is currently committed to several challenging domestic climate change targets, as summarised below:Table 1: Domestic climate change targets
Key targets
Progress to date
In 1997 the Government set a target to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% below 1990 levels by 2010.[4]

One of the goals defined by the 2003 Energy White Paper is to further reduce the UK's CO2 emissions by 60% below 1990 baseline levels by 2050.[5]

Forecasts from the Department of Trade and Industry suggest that, by 2010, emissions of CO2 will only be 14% below 1990 levels, based on current policies.[6]
The Renewables Obligation, introduced in 2000, committed the Government to a target of 10.4% of all electricity generated being provided by renewable energy sources by 2010. This was extended in December 2003 to a target of 15% of electricity to come from renewables by 2015. In the second year of the Renewables Obligation (2003-04) 2.4% of Great Britain's electricity came from eligible renewable sources, falling far short of the 4.3% Obligation level for this period.[7]
The Kyoto Protocol, signed by 171 Parties including the UK, came into force on 16 February 2005. Under the terms of the Protocol, the UK is legally bound to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases to 12.5% below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. In 2003, total UK greenhouse gas emissions were 14% below 1990 base year levels.[8] The Protocol has not been ratified by either the United States—by far the biggest emitter in the world, accounting for 20.6% of global emissions—or Australia, with higher per capita emissions than the US.

4. Our terms of reference were:

  • The forthcoming review of the UK Climate Change Programme during 2004-05, looking particularly at what new policies might be needed to keep the United Kingdom on track in reducing all greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The role that the Government will play in 2005 as Chair of the G8 and as President of the European Council in driving forward the Kyoto and post-Kyoto agendas.

5. We received 45 written submissions and took oral evidence in December 2004 and both January and February 2005 from: the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Sir David King; the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research; the Biosciences Federation; BAA plc; the Association of Electricity Producers; the Business Council for Sustainable Energy; the Renewable Power Association; Our World Foundation; Friends of the Earth; WWF-UK; the Energy Saving Trust; the Local Government Association; Rt Hon Stephen Byers MP, co-chair of the International Climate Change Taskforce; the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We are grateful to all those who gave evidence to this inquiry.

6. Our inquiry has run in parallel with that being conducted by the Environmental Audit Committee on Climate Change, though the primary focus of each is somewhat different. We trust that both reports will therefore complement each other.


What is climate change?

7. Energy coming from the sun as visible radiation (or sunlight) is re-emitted back from earth to space. The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon whereby some of this energy remains trapped, absorbed by naturally occurring gases in the atmosphere, thus maintaining the temperature of the earth's surface at a temperature some 33°C warmer than it would otherwise be and enabling life as we know it to exist.[9]

8. As a result of human activities, the atmospheric concentrations of some of these 'greenhouse gases' (GHGs)—including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O)—have increased, predominantly since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 1750s. Since that time, changes in the global climate have also occurred, and a statistical link has now been established between human activity and observed climate change phenomena.[10]

Why should we be concerned?

9. As part of the UK's commitment to address the issue of climate change during its Presidency of the G8, an international symposium was held in Exeter during February 2005 to advance scientific understanding of the long-term implications of climate change. Some of the key challenges are detailed in Table 2 below.Table 2: Key climate challenges

Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change - Exeter 2005[11]

Key Challenges
  • The ten hottest years globally since records began in 1860 have occurred since 1991.
  • By 2050 between 15%-37% of a sample of 1,103 land plants and animals will eventually become extinct as a result of climate change.[12]
  • The physical effects of climate change (e.g. the impact on agriculture, increased mortality, extreme weather and health effects) could cost society some £70 per tonne of carbon emitted, based on 2000 prices.[13]
  • Although agricultural yields in the EU and the US are predicted to benefit from marginal increases in average global temperature, yields will fall once the increased temperature reaches 2°C and above.
  • With a 0.8°C average rise in global temperatures, an additional 400 million people could be at risk from water stress, with the risk of malaria in North America increased by a factor of 1.27.
  • An increase of 1°C could more than double the number of people at risk from water stress to an additional 829 million, and decrease the rice yield in S Asia by 6-10%.
  • A rise of between 1-3°C could cause the thermohaline circulation—the global ocean 'conveyor', of which the Gulf Stream is part—to collapse, impacting upon fisheries, ecosystems and agriculture throughout Northern and Western Europe. This would constitute an 'extreme event', the full consequences of which are yet to be fully understood.
  • Increases of between 2-3°C could cause the Amazon rainforest to collapse and be replaced by savannah. There will be and increased desertification as forests and grasslands are lost.
  • With an increase of 2.3°C above pre-industrial levels, there could be some 7 million additional people at risk of hunger in the developing world.

  • A temperature increase of 2.5-3°C could reduce China's rice yields by 10-20%. Crop failure in Southern Africa could increase from 50% to 75% with an increase of 2.5-4°C.

10. Climate change is a global phenomenon which has an impact upon all aspects of society and the environment. Even taking into consideration the degree of uncertainty noted by some commentators, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that the global temperature will increase by at least 1.4°C this century.[14] Whilst this may not sound significant, the world is already experiencing the adverse effects of a 0.6°C increase in global temperature.

11. The IPCC states that:

There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last fifty years is attributable to human activities.

12. The IPCC predicted in 2001 that average global temperatures upwards of 0.6°C above pre-industrial levels would result in increased frequency of heatwaves, with associated elevated mortality, and decreasing water resources.[15]

13. In August 2003, approximately 15,000 people in Northern France and some 2,000 people in England and Wales died as a result of the unusually hot weather.[16] Across Europe this figure reached 30,000. According to statistical analyses, approximately half of the severity of the hot summer can be attributed to global warming with 90% certainty.[17]

14. In the Arctic, average temperatures in the last few decades have risen at a rate almost twice that of the rest of the world. Arctic sea ice has already reduced by 15-20%. A study by NASA found that the Greenland ice sheet was retreating at a rate of one metre per year in 2001. The most recent study indicates that it is now retreating at approximately 10 metres per year. Increased temperatures of just 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will precipitate the complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet, the consequences of which would be severe, particularly for coastal regions, resulting in an eventual rise in sea level of some 7 metres (23 feet).[18]

15. Increased global temperatures and the resulting higher sea levels commonly cited as a consequence are not the only effects the world will experience as a result of climate change. Extreme weather phenomena will also become increasingly common, with heightened frequency and severity of storms, resulting in increased flooding and coastal erosion. In the early 1980s the Thames Barrier was used less than once a year. It is now used on average six times a year.[19]

16. In the UK insurance claims for storm and flood damage (not all of which are attributable to climate change) have doubled between 1998 and 2003, when compared to the previous five years. In 2003, this amounted to £6 billion. Predictions by the Association of British Insurers suggest this figure could double or even triple by 2050 unless measures are taken to both adapt for and mitigate future climate change.[20] These costs will ultimately be passed on to the consumer, with some properties such as those in high risks areas for flooding, becoming uninsurable.[21] Estimates by Swiss Re, the world's second largest insurer, suggest that the worldwide financial costs of climate change could double in the next 10 years to US$150 billion each year.[22]

17. Climate change will also impact upon the marine environment. A recently published Defra report notes the impact of climate change on both our coasts and the ocean's temperature, salinity and acidity.[23] Researchers from the US Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego have found clear evidence of an unequivocal link between greenhouse gas emissions from human activity and oceanic warming.[24] The concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, has increased by approximately 35% since the start of the industrial revolution. Research by the Plymouth Marine Laboratory has found that the oceans, a massive sink for atmospheric carbon which have already taken up just under 50% of all man-made emissions of CO2, have been gradually increasing in acidity as a result. This could have several far-reaching consequences; any changes in oceanic biochemistry will impact upon plankton and shellfish at the bottom of the food chain, and thus alter the entire marine ecosystem. It may also signal the demise of coral reefs.[25]

'Global dimming'

18. Recent research provides evidence for 'global dimming'. This refers to the reduction of energy from the sun reaching the surface of the planet due to air pollution. Industrial waste emissions include small particles as well as the invisible global warming gases. These particles can be seen in dense urban areas as smog, and can move into the upper atmosphere where they both act as a physical barrier to incoming sunlight, and also increase the reflectivity of the clouds. Consequently, the intensity of sunlight is reduced, resulting in a global cooling effect, recently implicated in the failure of the summer monsoon in the Sahel which caused the great famines in the 1980s. This global cooling may also have masked the warming effects of greenhouse gases, causing scientists to underestimate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on global warming. Due to efforts to reduce air pollution, we have recently seen a decrease in 'global dimming', with improved air quality—important for respiratory disorders—and the return of the monsoon. However it is suggested that this might have the additional consequence of accelerating global warming yet further.[26]

Adaptation and mitigation

19. There are two main strategies by which the impacts of climate change can be addressed. Mitigation strategies are long-term methods by which emissions of greenhouse gases are reduced to minimise the extent of climate change in the future. Adaptation strategies acknowledge that a degree of climate change as a result of past human activity is already inevitable, and employ methodologies to reduce the predicted impact of climate change. While they are often discussed independently of one another, both strategies are complementary. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Research told us:

Adaptation and mitigation strategies are intimately linked—the less emphasis is placed on mitigation, the more difficult adaptation will be.[27]

20. The Association of British Insurers also argued that adaptation to climate change needs to take place in parallel with efforts to mitigate the causes:

We are already locked into a significant degree of climate change, no matter what we do to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. National and international efforts to reduce greenhouse gases may lessen the degree of climate change in the coming century, but they will not prevent it completely.[28]

21. The Biosciences Federation argued for further adaptation measures to predict, cope with and prepare for the consequences of climate change:

The UK Climate Change Programme should consider more deeply UK policies for coping and adapting to impending changes in climate, particularly with regards to impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems.

The Federation argues that there is likely to be a substantial impact on biodiversity with large changes in the structure of natural biological communities.[29]

1   "Climate Change Science: Adapt, Mitigate, or Ignore?", Science, 9 January 2004 Back

2   Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Third assessment Report, Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, 2001 Summary for policymakers pp 2, 7, 10 Back

3   Prime Minister's Speech on climate change, 14 September 2004, at Back

4   Defra, Global Atmosphere Research Programme, Annual Report 2002-2003, November 2003, p 5 Back

5   Department of Trade and Industry, Our energy future - creating a low carbon economy, Cm 5761, February 2003, p 8 Back

6   "Government 'looks to do more' in climate change programme review", ENDS Report vol 359, December 2004 p 48 Back

7   National Audit Office, Renewable Energy, February 2005 Back

8   Defra, Review of the UK Climate Change Programme, December 2004, Executive summary Back

9   Defra, The environment in your pocket 2004, October 2004, p 7 Back

10   Defra, Review of the UK Climate Change Programme, Consultation Paper, December 2004 p 11; IPCC 2001 Back

11   All facts cited were sourced from the Exeter climate change symposium (see unless otherwise stated Back

12   Sir David King, The Guardian, 24 November 2004 Back

13   HM Treasury, Government Economic Service Working Paper 140 Estimating the Social Cost of Carbon, January 2002, p 6 Back

14   IPCC, Climate Change 2001: The scientific basis, 2001 p 527 Back

15   IPCC, Climate Change 2001: The scientific basis, 2001  Back

16   UK health impacts of climate change, POSTnote 232, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, November 2004 Back

17   Sir David King, The Guardian, 24 November 2004 Back

18   ACIA, Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, Cambridge University Press, 2004; Gregory, 2004 from Scientific symposium 'Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change', Exeter, February 2005 Back

19   House of Lords, Thirtieth Report of the European Union Committee, Session 2003-04, The EU and Climate Change HL Paper 179-I, para 11 Back

20   Ev 215 Back

21   Office of Science and Technology, Foresight Report Future Flooding, 2004 Back

22   Prime Minister's Speech on climate change, 14 September 2004, at Back

23   Defra, Charting Progress: An integrated assessment of the state of UK seas, PB 9911, March 2005 Back

24   Scripps Institution of Oceanography press release, 'Scripps researchers find clear evidence of human-produced warming in the world's oceans', 17 February 2005. The study was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, February 2005. Back

25   Turley et al., 'Reviewing the Impact of Increased Atmospheric CO2 on Oceanic pH and the Marine Ecosystem', Proceedings of the International Symposium on Stabilisation of Greenhouse Gases, Exeter, February 2005 Back

26   BBC2, Horizon Global dimming, January 2005; Stanhill, G. and Cohen, S. 'Global Dimming: A Review of the Evidence', Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, 107: 255-278 (2001); Roderick, M. and Farquhar, G. 'The Cause of Decreased Pan Evaporation Over the Past 50 Years', Science, 298: 1410-1411 (2002); U39, para1 Back

27   Ev 18 Back

28   Ev 215 Back

29   Ev 24 Back

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