England Gets Serious About Global Warming
by Jim Motavalli
According to the prestigious journal Nature, 2004 was the fourth-
warmest year on record. And January 2005 was the second-warmest
January of the past 27 years, says the Earth System Science Center at
the University of Alabama.
Despite evidence like this, climate change has yet to make it onto
the radar screens of most Americans. The opposite is true in England,
where the science is hotly debated. In the Daily Express newspaper,
for instance, David Bellamy, a much-beloved figure in Britain for his
TV shows about plants and other natural phenomena, recently weighed
in with a treatise. He claimed that global warming is a lot of hot
air, but even if it was true the increase in carbon dioxide would
simply be good for plant growth. Bellamy had apparently missed a 2002
article in the respected journal Science, which concluded
that "elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) actually reduces
[emphasis added] plant growth when combined with other likely
consequences of climate changenamely, higher temperatures, increased
precipitation or increased nitrogen deposits in the soil."
But Bellamy is definitely in the minority in England, a country that
is fast recognizing its responsibility to do something about global
warming. Last September, Prime Minister Tony Blair made a major
speech on the subject, pointing out that the 10 warmest years on
record have all been since 1990, and that the planet has experienced
the most drastic temperature rise in more than 1,000 years in the
northern hemisphere. "Glaciers are melting," he said. "Sea ice and
snow cover is declining. Animals and plants are responding to an
earlier spring. Sea levels are rising
Apart from a diminishing
handful of skeptics, there is a virtual worldwide scientific
consensus on the scope of the problem."
Unlike the U.S., which refuses to sign the treaty, England is on
target to meet its Kyoto goals, thanks to a determined carbon
reduction effort underway on the federal and municipal level. Typical
of the commitment is Allan Jones, the new head of the London Climate
Change Agency. Jones came to London after achieving revolutionary
change in Woking, a city of 100,000 people. With combined heat and
power (CHP) cogeneration systems and solar energy (10 percent of
Great Britain's installed capacity), Woking has reduced its energy
use by 48 percent since 1990, which means 5.4 million pounds of CO2
kept out of the atmosphere. The city is now nearly 90 percent
independent of the grid, with its own energy services company.
Woking's reductions will be scaled up for Greater London, which has
7.2 million people. Nicky Gavron, the city's deputy mayor, is
confident that this world capital can reach the ambitious goal of a
20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2010. It doesn't have much
choice, she adds, since rising tides are an imminent threat. "The
Thames Barrier, built to close against rare storm surges, has been
forced to shut 19 times in a month," she says. "With rising tides we
would lose most of South London, The City [London's Wall Street] and
the tube [subway]."
London is addressing its transportation-based emissions with a £5
($9) "congestion charge" for vehicles entering the city. Imposed in
2003 by London Mayor Ken Livingstone, the scheme has already reduced
traffic delays by 30 percent. An estimated 18 percent reduction has
been achieved on traffic entering the zone. Bus ridership is up.
Although some taxi drivers are sour on Livingstone as "anti-car," 70
percent of businesses (initially the biggest opponents of congestion
charging) are now supportive.
Gavron estimates that only 20 percent of London's CO2 emissions is
caused by vehicles; buildings produce more than 70 percent. London is
learning from partners like Toronto how to implement energy audits
and make new home construction (necessary because of rising
population) more efficient. Woking's CHP modelhigh-efficiency
localized units that combine power generation with heating and
coolingwill also be studied. "We're going for big CO2 hits," she
And Britain is also leading the scientific charge. Opening the UK
Conference on "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change" in Exeter, Dennis
Tirpak pointed out that "there is evidence that rising greenhouse
gases are affecting rainfall patterns and the global water cycle."
These same gases "are probably increasing river flows into the Arctic
Ocean, consistent with the observational record since the 1960s."
The scientists at the conference were struggling with the use of the
word "dangerous," since their work demands objectivity. But there was
little doubt that the evidence they presented threatens our future.
Stephen H. Schneider of Stanford University (who was privately
contemptuous of the Bush administration's go-slow approach to global
warming) reiterated the global effects predicted by the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): more frequent heat
waves, more intense storms, a faster spread of disease, inundation of
small island nations, species extinction and loss of biodiversity.
Schneider detailed such speculative effects as a possible collapse of
the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation (the Day After Tomorrow
scenario, though on a much less dramatic timetable), and the
deglaciation of polar ice sheets in Greenland and the West Antarctic,
causing many feet of additional sea-level rise. Then there are what
he called "true surprises," dramatic events like rapidly forced
climate change that we can't accurately foresee (despite the rows of
climate-dedicated supercomputers on display in the Hadley Centre,
where the conference took place).
The collapse of thermohaline circulation is a fancy way of saying
that huge amounts of Arctic ice melt will affect the flow of warm
water in the Gulf Stream, plunging Europe into dramatically colder
temperatures. Will it occur? Opinions at the conference were divided.
Richard Wood of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research
described it as a "high impact, low-probability event." He predicted
a shutdown of "from zero to 50 percent" over the next century. "Loss
of the thermohaline circulation is possible, and it could be
irreversible," Wood said. "But there is no detectable weakening yet."
An even scarier scenario was presented by Michael Schlesinger of the
University of Illinois. He predicted, "The likelihood of the collapse
of thermohaline circulation in the next 200 years is two in three.
Even with rigorous human intervention to stop it the risk is one in
four." He gave the numbers as a four-in-10 chance by 2100, and 65 out
of 100 by 2200.
Sir David King, the Blair government's chief science advisor (and a
professor of physical chemistry at Cambridge), concluded, "Kyoto is
just a beginning for dealing with climate change. The UK will take a
leading role, but true global action is necessary. We have to bring
India, Brazil and China [which will build as many power stations in
2005 as exist in all of England] into the process. And we have to
persuade people to worry about this for their grandchildren's sake.
We're not talking about long-term scenarios anymore. The impacts over
just the next 30 years could be quite severe."