The climate change challenge - what can we do about it?

Recently-appointed IPCC member Professor Jim Skea spoke to the SCI Thames and Kennet Regional Group on the risks from, and possible solutions to, man-made climate change. On 11 April 2008, at the impressive Rutherford Appleton Laboratories, Professor Jim Skea, Director of Research for the UK Energy Research Centre presented an illuminating lecture on the challenges faced by climate change.

Professor Skea was well placed to lecture on this topic, having been recently appointed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group established by the UN in 1988.

It is generally recognised that increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are contributing to a rise in global temperatures. Throughout the Industrial Revolution global temperatures rose by around 0.5°C. Apart from a brief drop in the middle of the 20th century, the trend over the last hundred years has been for temperatures to increase. Professor Skea said that rises of between 2°C and 6°C were predicted over the next century. The effects have already been felt most in the polar regions (see: ‘Understanding the Shrinking Arctic’, C&I 2008, 3, 32) and in retreating Alpine glaciers. Other effects are the rise in storm activity, most notably in areas of Asia, where the results have been devastating.

Professor Skea outlined some of the requirements to contain this problem, in particular, a reduction of CO2 emissions by 50%, which with the world’s fossil fuel demand still rising, seems to be a long way off. From a UK perspective this is worrying, as our dependency for fuel on countries with less than stable economic and political regimes will only increase.

For guidance on future improvements, The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, written for the British government in 2006, listed five main areas for attention:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Carbon capture for fossil fuel burning industries
  • Renewable energy sources
  • Nuclear power
  • Life style

Within the overall ‘roadmap’ set out by the UN Forum on Climate Change, by 2020 UK energy policy is targeted with a 20% cut in CO2 emissions, a 20% improvement in overall energy efficiency and a contribution of 20% from renewable energy sources. For electricity, the aim is to have 40% produced by renewable sources; considering just 4% is currently produced renewably, this is a major challenge.

Summarising the situation, Professor Skea said that immediate priority should be given to improving energy efficiency, more carbon capture and storage, plus greater use of renewable energy sources, including wind power, tidal generation and solar energy. In the nuclear field, he sees new plants as very likely, notwithstanding the continuing dispute about potential hazards. Also high on the priority list for action are lifestyle choices, such as limiting the use of vehicles and air travel. Last, but not least, Professor Skea made no bones about the fact that the real challenge facing policy makers is having any effective influence on public perceptions and habits.

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