Climate Milestone Passes Un-noticed

This article was originally published on the Sustainable Business Toolkit website in May 2013

To be fair to the Prime Minister, he did have a lot on his mind on 10th May 2013. The Conservative party was embarking on one of its periodic spasms of self-destruction, this time following the strong showing by UKIP at the Tories’ expense in the local elections the previous week. With a Euro-Sceptic backbench rebellion to add to the ongoing unrest about “Gay Marriage” among his MPs, David Cameron could perhaps be excused for allowing the latest news from Hawaii to sink below the surface of the Downing Street In-Tray.

Except this was no ordinary run-of-the-mill bulletin from the Pacific Island paradise; not a weather report of another gloriously sunny day and not the latest breaking news of spectacular surfing exploits. This time the news from Hawaii, and in particular from the Mauna Loa Observatory, was that the levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere had risen to levels not seen since the Pliocene period over 3 million years ago.

Four hundred parts per million does not seem any more momentous than when it is written in its usual, abbreviated form of 400ppm but it is an important landmark , remarkable both for its absolute magnitude and the speed at which it has come about. At the dawn of the industrial age, less than three centuries ago, the level was around 280ppm. When the Mauna Loa observatory was established in 1958, the level had climbed slowly to 315ppm. The Keeling curve that plots the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, named after scientist Dr Charles Keeling who started the Hawaiian observations, has climbed steadily upwards at an increasing rate ever since.

Analysis of bubbles of ancient air trapped in Antarctic ice sheets suggests that, for the 800,000 years preceding the Industrial Revolution, global atmospheric CO2 levels had remained between 200 and 300ppm. To jump from this long term stable average to the present 400ppm level in a mere 250 years represents a rate of increase – some 75 times faster than the pre-industrial average – that has no precedent in the geological record. What the evidence does suggest is that, the last time that the 400ppm threshold was crossed, global average temperatures were 3 or 4 degrees Centigrade warmer than today and around 8 degrees warmer at the poles. Reef corals suffered major extinction and areas around the Arctic Circle that are today a frozen wilderness were covered in lush forest growth. There is always a lag between the level of CO2 in the atmosphere increasing and the manifestation of its warming effects on the climate so, even if levels were to miraculously stabilise at their current magnitude tomorrow, there would still be a certain amount of warming to come. And CO2 levels show no signs of stabilising; in fact, anything but.

Even if the latest news on the global CO2 front passed the Prime Minister by, he cannot have failed to notice the report by the Government’s own Committee on Climate Change that highlighted the fact that, although domestic production of CO2 is down by 20% over the past two decades, the UK’s carbon footprint has actually increased by 10% as “embodied emissions” in imported goods have increased at a faster rate than UK-based production emissions.

This trend is cause for concern from both environmental and economic policy standpoints. If the UK is effectively “offshoring” its CO2 emissions by replacing domestic manufacturing production with imports, this is bad news for the British manufacturing sector and bad news for UK workers as jobs go to companies based overseas. It also suggests a weak base for any Green Recovery from the ongoing economic downturn. Gaining market share and decarbonising production would be significant challenges individually for the manufacturing sector to face. To ask firms to adopt low carbon technologies whilst at the same time competing to regain market share previously lost to imports is a big ask indeed.

Chancellor George Osborne has attracted a lot of criticism (not least from me) for his assertion that: “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business”. The latest evidence suggests that we are currently failing to save the economy and, if governments do not start according the reduction of CO2 levels the priority it desperately requires, we are in very real danger of putting the planet out of business.

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