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A delicate balancing act to avert climate meltdown: By Ron Oxburgh

FINANCIAL TIMES: A delicate balancing act to avert climate meltdown: By Ron Oxburgh

By Ron Oxburgh

Published: July 4 2005

In 1896, Svante Arrhenius, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist, predicted that burning fossil fuels would increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and cause global warming. The recent statement from national science academies around the world confirms ­Arrhenius’s broad conclusion. It also shows that emissions of CO2 are disturbing the delicate balance of factors (such as sea temperature, salinity, currents, ice sheets and solar radiation) that maintained an exceptionally stable, gently warming climate over 8,000 years while human beings achieved the astonishing transformation that we call modern civilisation.

Although climate has changed continuously in the past, the present rate of change is unparalleled; that is what will make our adaptation difficult and costly. It is difficult to predict what may be expected at particular places. In general, it is a story of more frequent tornados, receding glaciers, storms, floods, rising sea levels, droughts and new pathogens.

The science academies advise that the longer we leave the problem, the more difficult it will become and studies have shown that an early response also makes better economic sense. The best, and possibly conservative, estimates suggest that the most extreme climatic consequences might be avoided if, by 2050, we can limit the increase in atmospheric CO2 to twice the pre-industrial level.

We have a delicate path to tread. Our global infrastructure worth hundreds of trillions of dollars, and the global economy, are founded on cheap fossil fuels. Our challenge is to manage a transition to a low-carbon economy

sufficiently soon to limit climate change and sufficiently gradually to be affordable during normal infrastructure renewal (of vehicles, power stations and so on). Much of our infrastructure is renewed on a 40- to 50-year timescale and if we start now we have a chance. We shall, in any case, have to find alternative sources of energy during the latter part of this century as oil reserves decline; climate change is simply pushing us to do it earlier.

So what are the options? Obviously we must stop wasting energy. We must demand more efficient appliances, vehicles and power stations. But our options for low carbon energy sources are limited. We naturally think of the renewable resources of wind, waves and the other dynamic processes of the earth and the sun. They help, but, because they are intermittent, do not necessarily match demand. They will not come into their own until we have some way of storing energy. Plants, of course, are nature’s way of storing solar energy and recently it has become possible to make cost-effective liquid fuels from agricultural residues such as straw, rather than from specially grown crops. This offers the important prospect of co-producing food and fuel.

What else do we have? Nuclear power remains on the menu and today’s designs are more efficient, safer and produce less waste than the ageing stations due for decommissioning shortly. Nuclear fusion – “clean nuclear” – may be a possibility but not much before the middle of the century.

Different countries will make different selections from the energy menu but all will depend on fossil fuels for decades. But what about emissions? They can be cut in three ways: improving combustion efficiency; changing the mix of fossil fuels in favour of natural gas, the least carbon-intensive fossil fuel; and for coal, the most carbon-intensive, removing CO2 from exhaust gases and storing it underground.

This last technology, carbon sequestration, is of paramount importance. Coal is the cheapest and most accessible fuel that developing countries can use to meet their burgeoning energy needs. Uncontained coal emissions from these countries could swamp the reductions made by the west. It is reported that China is commissioning a new, 1GW coal-fired power station about every five days. Any global emissions plan that does not address coal will not work.

The Group of Eight must acknowledge the reality of climate change and the need for prompt action. They must recognise that developing countries will be unable to limit their emissions unless the developed world provides technical and financial support. For their part, the developing countries must recognise that it is in their interests to co-operate – they will be among the most vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme climatic events, and the least equipped to cope with them. And for business this is an opportunity, not a threat.

Lord Oxburgh is non-executive chairman of Shell Transport and Trading

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