Does a renewed focus on adapting to climate change mean we should give up on trying to prevent it?
At the end of last month the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report claiming the effects of climate change are already occurring on all continents and across the oceans.
The report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, from Working Group II of the IPCC, details the impacts of climate change to date, the future risks from a changing climate, and the opportunities for effective action to reduce risks.
Until now adaptation to climate change had gained little focus – even though it is something governments are doing as a matter of course as they respond to extreme weather events (witness the UK government’s consideration of major flood defence schemes for the Somerset levels in the wake of this winter’s flooding).
The shale revolution can be very consistent with low-carbon development - that is quite clear. It can be very helpful as a bridge technology
Professor Ottmar Edenhofer
Some in energy-intensive industries, tired of costly emissions caps and renewable electricity subsidy support, took this as a sign that governments are weakening in their resolve to cut global carbon dioxide emissions.
Speaking at a Chemical Industries Association (CIA) event in London a few days before the Working Group II report publication, Ineos director Tom Crotty said the report - which has been in development since 2009 – marked a shift in emphasis away from mitigation to adaptation, and showed governments were cooling on ambitious climate change policies.
“Moving from mitigation to adaptation is from IPCC, I think recognition of the reality the IPCC finds itself in, where most governments post-economic downturn are saying, figuratively, ‘there are bigger fish to fry’,” said Crotty.
“The US is saying ‘we have sorted climate change obligations by dramatically reducing emissions through the use of shale gas (instead of coal)’. Here in Europe we need to ask ‘do we need to do the right thing when no one else around the world is?’”
The pro-shale gas/anti-renewables lobby also had a field day with comments made over the weekend by Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chairman of the IPCC authors, ahead of Working Group III’s publication of its report on mitigation on Monday.
Edenhofer told reporters: “The shale gas revolution can be very consistent with low-carbon development - that is quite clear. It can be very helpful as a bridge technology.”
However, what was less well-reported was that he went on to say this would only be the case if gas was replacing coal – not, as potentially could be the case here in the UK, funds being diverted from renewables subsidies to support shale gas development.
Working Group III’s report itself makes no mention of shale gas, and makes the point that to limit the increase in global mean temperature to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels will require global greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70% compared with 2010 by the middle of this century, and to zero by its end.
While, as Edenhofer says, gas could help facilitate this at the start by replacing coal, Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) deputy president professor Geoff Maitland points that any long term benefit from gas to emission levels will only come with the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.
“There is good evidence to support a greater emphasis towards using natural gas,” said Maitland.
“In the US, the growth in shale gas has reduced the rate of increase in CO2 emissions to around a third of their previous levels. In the meantime, we have to abate greenhouse gases from existing fossil fuel energy sources much more rapidly than we are at present. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a solution, but will again need leadership and resources to help establish an estimated 3,200 CCS facilities required worldwide over the next 35 years to remove the necessary levels of CO2 from the atmosphere.”
He also warned that such development would require strong political will, especially given the costs associated with implementing CCS.
“Without government support there is a limit to which the rate of technology development for CCS and of these new sources of energy can be delivered to the market place in the quantities needed to meet global demand, whilst capping CO2 emissions at acceptable levels,” he said.
In the US, the growth in shale gas has reduced the rate of increase in CO2 emissions to around a third of their previous levels
IChemE deputy president Geoff Maitland
“There is also the question of cost. New plants, especially gas, which include CCS, will need to be built. The costs of CCS may add 25% to typical household bills. However, the price of taking no action is immeasurable and unthinkable and we need to dispel the myths about continuing low energy prices compounded by political parties focused on short-term, vote-winning electoral policies.”
The IPCC is talking about adapting to climate change because, in the words of Working Group II co-chair Vicente Barros, “the world faces a host of risks from climate change already baked into the climate system, due to past emissions and existing infrastructure”.
It would seem bizarre to suggest, as Crotty does, that because we are now facing up to the realities of living with and adapting to the effects of climate change, we ought to stop worrying about trying to prevent it from wreaking further havoc in the future.