Governments across the world are making their final preparations for the landmark United Nations climate change summit in Paris which begins in late November. The event is one of the most ambitious environmental conferences for a generation and, while a deal is growing in likelihood, it remains unclear how bold and comprehensive it will be.
With all countries involved in setting a framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, parliamentarians, industry leaders and academics met in advance of the summit in Paris on September 24. These talks explored a range of practical but potentially transformational strategies that could be accepted by societies and that will enable governments to agree on fair targets for different regions and types of country.
The scientific consensus reflected in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports is that global average temperature over land and ocean surfaces will rise by some 2°C by 2050, and then continue rising if economic growth based on current technology and agriculture is not reversed.
However, last month’s meeting expressed a broad emerging consensus that technological transformation could enable standards of living of populations in the industrialised world to be maintained, while at the same time reducing carbon emissions substantially enough that developing countries will be able to grow their economies and therefore their emissions up to global per capita levels.
But most countries are equally concerned that environmental policies must also deal with the impacts of increasingly severe natural hazards caused by global environmental changes, and special regional effects such as burning forests, the melting of polar ice, and desertification and spreading of diseases. As the UN goals of long term sustainability have emphasised, societies need to become significantly more resilient. This aspect of adaptation requires many aspects of their structure and functioning to be re-planned.
This growing confidence about the potential for future technological and green energy transformations in the developed world is underpinned by several factors. First, there is greater belief that, in some countries, including nonagricultural Nordic states, reliable and economic technology will be available and with sufficient capacity to provide nonfossil energy for electricity and even for transportation.
The past two decades have provided clear evidence about growing reliability of installation and operation of low carbon renewable energy systems, especially wind, solar and hydro-electric. In the United States and Europe, for instance, the rate of installation of these systems now exceeds that of other carbon or noncarbon sources of energy for electrical power.
However, winds can be weak and variable, and clouds can obscure solar radiation, so back-up energy supplies are used from hydro-electric, or geothermal, or from nuclear fission. Globally, the proportion of noncarbon electrical energy (excluding hydro-power) provided by nuclear power is now about 50%. This proportion has dropped following concerns about the spread of atmospheric and marine radiation caused by the tsunami impact on the Fukushima nuclear power station, but may rise significantly as countries such as China increasingly build nuclear stations.
The shift towards low carbon energy for transport, which uses about 30% of generated energy, is also contentious. Some countries have been introducing fuels that partially reduce carbon emissions, although these fuels, such as diesel, increase air pollution, and are at the centre of the recent scandal surrounding Volkswagen.
Alternatives to coal and oil include use of carbon-neutral fuel derived from crops or solar captured bio-plant. Although introducing hydrogen as a transportable power source produces zero carbon emission, it requires more substantial technology changes in the vehicle and in the storage and delivery of fuel, which raises concern about explosion risks.
One immediate measure, which some countries are implementing unilaterally, for bringing down carbon emissions is to reduce the speed of road vehicles, shipping, and aviation. These cuts are also being advocated, for instance, on motorway signs in some countries, because of their significant health benefits, which may help overcome political and popular resistance to their introduction.
Even more fundamental social transformations towards a green economy are emerging too, such as substituting much travel with remote communication by phone, video and internet, and substituting smart local production for transported goods, with 3D printing of products and innovative local food production.
About 30% to 40% of total energy supply in developed countries is accounted for by heating and other services in buildings, although the total amount per dwelling is increasing because of larger usage of water, ventilation and information technology. Yet, as these uses become smarter, with intelligent design and control such as by utilising intermittent power, and by optimising designs of internal-external spaces, the total use of energy can be reduced substantially.
Progress in energy use and structure is now coming from remarkable materials technology with new nano-materials improving the insulation and structural properties of wooden beams and walls. And liquid-gas micro channels used as heat pipes enable heat to be transferred and stored in smart brick, as pioneered in plastic green houses in China.
Governments need to seize the opportunity at the Paris conference to frame their agreements for the long term based on evidence of the growing effectiveness of low carbon policies, and greener economies. As some governments already recognise, these developments also provide a spring board for innovative industry and agriculture, and sustainable developments in social and environmental planning.
At the same time, policies should be consistent with overall sustainability strategies for ensuring greater resilience of societies and infrastructure against the impacts of natural and artificial hazards. These are only likely to worsen until human effects on the global environment are brought under much better control.
Lord Hunt is a visiting professor at Delft University of Technology and former director general of the United Kingdom Meteorological Office