Four surprises and one non-surprise

First the non-surprise: the final IPCC Fifth Assessment report is out and it is every bit as urgent and comprehensive as should have been expected. It is no surprise to be warned (again) just how urgent action on climate change is and how short the remaining time frame for meaningful action is. But nevertheless it remains enormously sobering to have it spelt out in such detail and so clearly. As Bill McKibben of puts it: ‘for scientists, conservative by nature, to use ‘serious, pervasive and irreversible’ to describe the effects of climate falls just short of announcing that climate change will produce a zombie apocalypse plus random beheadings plus Ebola.’

The symbolic handover of the synthesis from the scientists to the decision makers has produced some minor surprises. First surprise was Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General. After declaring that ‘science has spoken: there is no ambiguity in the message’ he added a request to energy investors, to quite simply ‘ please reduce your investments in the coal and fossil fuel economy and move to renewable energy’. I’m not sure anyone in such a position has put it quite so straightforwardly before. Except perhaps for my second surprise, the hitherto not-known-to-be-very-green Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, who warned just a few weeks ago that industry was in grave danger of backing stranded assets. As he told a World Bank seminar, ‘the vast majority of [fossil fuel] reserves are unburnable’ if global temperature rises are to be limited to below 2 degrees. This is very much in line with the findings of the IPCC. Indeed one of the central points that the Synthesis report makes is about the consequences of delaying action until 2030; if we wait, the cost of reducing emissions will be much higher because the more recently built fossil fuel power stations will have to close early, stranding these assets.

And the third surprise in the context of this theme is the apparent seriousness with which China, from where I have just returned, is now taking carbon trading when most people concluded at the outset that it would be a token policy at the most. China is now looking to go national after two years of its seven pilot schemes at provincial level (several of which, however, contain the population and industry of a larger European country). It also seems to have already started to rectify some of the early trading problems that dogged phase one of the European scheme. But if it is as serious as it looks, the emissions trading scheme cannot fail to impact very heavily on Chinese coal which, even now, the Chinese are looking to reduce reliance on by 1% a year. This could of course have some bearing on the crippling smogs which the capital and indeed the whole of eastern China are now afflicted by. Citizens there are enduring levels of particulates that are officially off the scale of conventional measurement of up to 500 micro particles per cubic metre. China’s increasing momentum on counter climate change measures may well be down to causes other than a benign interest in seeing emissions fall across the globe, but in the emergency set out by the IPCC report, all allies, for whatever reason, are more than welcome.

And the fourth surprise? Rather a banal tail gunner after the big three I set out above. Guess who was wheeled on by the BBC to ‘comment’ on the IPCC report on the day it was released: one Benny Peiser of Nigel Lawson’s so-called Global Warming Policy Foundation. That was a surprise, not in terms of the predictable stuff that Peiser came out with, but because I thought the employment of contrarians to provide ‘balance’ on the ‘unambiguous message’ of the effects of climate change had been sorted out. Apparently not. Have a word with them, Ban Ki-Moon, if you have the time. But meanwhile thank you for what you have said on energy investment – you are absolutely right.

This article was first published on

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