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Thoughts on Copenhagen: Nicholas Stern

The Copenhagen climate change conference is critical in moving us to action. The construction industry has its part to play, says Nicholas Stern

Scientific evidence is clear that we must avoid an increase in average global temperature of more than 2°C, a level beyond which scientists warn that it would be ‘dangerous’ to go. To give us a reasonable chance of achieving this, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – currently at about 435 parts per million (ppm) of carbon-dioxide-equivalent and rising by 2.5ppm per year – must peak below 500ppm and eventually stabilise below 450ppm.

Current emissions of greenhouse gases would lead to temperatures not seen on the planet for tens of millions of years, causing profound changes in the physical environment.
The economic analysis tells us that the cost of weak or delayed action greatly exceeds the cost of timely and strong action.

By 2050, we must reduce global emissions by 50 per cent of 1990 levels, and rich countries should lead the way with cuts of 80 per cent. Britain’s 2008 Climate Change Act made us the first country in the world to set legally binding carbon budgets, aiming to cut UK emissions by 34 per cent by 2020 and by at least 80 per cent by 2050.

The Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government, stated that accelerated delivery of carbon reduction measures is essential to meet these ambitious targets. The reduction of emissions has to rise from the current rate of 0.5 per cent per year (averaged over the period between 1990 and 2010) to 2-3 per cent per year between 2010 and 2020.

At stake at the Copenhagen conference is the agreement of emission reduction action plans for all countries and binding targets for rich countries. The stringency of the agreement which emerges will impact on the price of carbon, which will in turn create financial incentives for reducing emissions. It will also determine what we face in terms of impact of climate change. Copenhagen is therefore critical in setting the basis for action for all countries to consider the impact of their activity on the planet and find ways to adjust.

Architects have the strategic and technical skills to deliver buildings that lead to lower emissions.

Energy consumed in the construction and operation of buildings is responsible for more than one third of total energy use. According to the fourth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in 2007, the building sector has great potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It concluded that the energy consumption of new and existing buildings can be cut between 30 and 50 per cent without significantly increased costs.

Architects, together with other built environment professionals, have the strategic and technical skills to deliver buildings that both lead to lower emissions and withstand those impacts of climate change that are now inevitable. With existing technologies, these buildings are now affordable. New technologies are constantly being created. What is required is the vision, leadership and commitment to make a low-carbon future reality.

Nicholas Stern is chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science

Readers' comments (1)

  • Sir Nicholas says:

    Scientific evidence is clear that we must avoid an increase in average global temperature of more than 2°C, a level beyond which scientists warn that it would be ‘dangerous’ to go. To give us a reasonable chance of achieving this, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – currently at about 435 parts per million (ppm) of carbon-dioxide-equivalent and rising by 2.5ppm per year – must peak below 500ppm and eventually stabilise below 450ppm.

    But this is not what the science shows us - the IPPC examinination of pathways temporarily exceeding 450ppm shows a risk of exceeding 2°C by around 50%. This is means it is as likely as NOT that a 450ppm target will result in a 2 degree stabilisation. Further bear in mind that a 2 degree increase would be devastating for so many developing countries - particularly small island states. As Sir Nicholas knows - the science has moved on a 350ppm target is needed and it requires real cuts from developed countries immediately.

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