Doomsday approaches

The USA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), located in North Carolina, maintains the world’s largest climate data archive. Its report, analysing the data from 2014, gives a snapshot of the global climate anomalies. Whilst we can accept that in any one year there can be an anomaly, the reasons for these can be complex. Never-the-less the average combined global land and ocean surface temperature for 2014 was the highest on record in the previous 135-years. This was a significant 0.7°C above the 20th century average. Climate change advocates will no doubt latch upon such statistics to verify that we do indeed have ‘global warming’.

But the same data set produces interesting contradictions. Sure enough the Arctic polar ice cap was 4% less than the 1981–2010 average. One generally assumes the warmer it is, the less ice there will be and that this would suggest a rise in average sea level.  But contrary to expectations, the larger Antarctic Sea ice was 10% above the same period’s average. Whilst we struggle to resolve the meaning of all this, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who created the theoretical ‘Doomsday Clock’, moved their minute-hand forward in 2015 to now show three minutes before midnight (i.e. doomsday). Whilst their indicator is influenced as much by proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as climate change, they also maintained that; “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon”.

In a rare sign of unity, and possibly in response to the depth of scientific data, the UK’s three main party political leaders have now pledged to work together to combat climate change, whatever the UK general election result. In a joint statement they acknowledged that ‘climate change was one of the most serious threats facing the world’. Accordingly they have promised to ‘end the use of unabated coal power’.

Some would say about time – since it is clear in the EU Commission’s report on ‘Subsidies and costs of EU energy’ that in 2012 coal subsides exceeded that of onshore wind. To be fair, renewable energy subsidies as a whole did fare better than the fossil fuels in the same period. Yet estimates of fossil fuel subsidies worldwide range into the order of trillions of dollars which has led to high-profile organisations, such as the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to call for their removal.  But what we might consider from this is there appears to be a three-year lag before we get enough reliable data to judge the success of such politicians’ pledges. No wonder it is so hard to pin policy failures on the incumbents.

Arguably the biggest threat to achieving CO2 targets is the huge drop in oil prices which have halved within a year. Touted in the mainstream media as good news for consumers’, it’s not the news that the off-grid renewable heating markets wanted to hear. Emissions from transport are also bound to increase, accompanied with new car registrations at a 10-year high.  Coincidentally Jonathon Porritt of Forum for the Future has declared that he and they will no longer work with Shell or BP. Porritt confirmed that, “We came to the conclusion that it was impossible for today’s oil and gas majors to adapt in a timely and intelligent way to the imperative of radical decarbonisation”. It does indeed seem that the odds are stacked against an amicable change of direction for the oil companies. As published the journal, Nature, to meet the notional 2oC limit on global temperatures, one-third of current oil, half of gas and over 80% of coal reserves will need to remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the limit. Attempts at further exploration to find reserves against this backdrop simply makes no sense.

The effect of low oil prices is a many-edged sword. High oil costs favours low CO2 alternatives whereas governments tend to prefer low prices as the electorate enjoys its cheaper travel and heating. Yet many a tax budget now lies in tatters as the barrel price plummets. The recent independence vote for Scotland brought this to a fore. Had the separation gone ahead, a fledgling country would now be facing the advertised closures of the North Sea Brent oil and gas fields, which formerly generated over £20bn of tax revenue since production began in 1976. No-doubt, oil prices will bounce back up; but there’s going to be some considerable fallout ahead.

Chris Laughton

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