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Human ingenuity is not enough

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If I was obsessed with 'the dark side of life' as Dr Guldberg implies, I wouldn't waste my time suggesting there was something we could do about global warming. A pessimist sees no hope.

It has been repeatedly affirmed that investment now in precautionary measures will be infinitely more cost-effective than dealing later with the economic and social consequences of catastrophic climate change. And it is a 'win-win' situation. Sooner or later there will have to be a global switch to alternative sources of energy as fossil-based fuels run out around the middle of the century. Already some countries are profiting from investing early in renewable energy industries, focusing on the ultimate goal of a hydrogen-based economy.

According to Sir John Houghton, co-chairman of the UN IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Scientific Committee, only a handful of scientists of any repute now question the validity of the global warming/climate change scenario. If I remember, he put it at 10, as against the thousands who have contributed to the succession of IPCC Assessment Reports.

This is the picture today.World energy consumption is predicted to rise by 59 per cent by 2020. Renewables will also expand but not at the same pace, with their share falling from 9 per cent at present to 8 per cent - and most of this will be large-scale hydro and nuclear. The consequence of this will be that carbon dioxide emissions are set to rise from 5.8 billion tonnes carbon equivalent (btce) to 9.8 btce by 2020. World use of oil is expected to rise from 75 million barrels per day in 1999 to 120 million barrels by 2020, mainly due to the rapid economic growth of developing countries (source: International Energy Outlook 2001).

What this amounts to is that, if the world continues to conform to the IPCC's 'business as usual' scenario, atmospheric concentrations of a carbon could rise to 800 parts per million by volume (ppmv) by the end of the century, compared with the highest in the paleo-climatic record of 300 ppmv. So far the world has not deviated from business as usual in the decade since the scenarios were first published.

What is beyond dispute is the close correspondence between levels of atmospheric carbon and temperature - and, despite what Austin Williams says, the 10 hottest years on record occurred in the past two decades.

When heat builds up in a closed system, the inevitable consequence is more vigorous climatic activity, especially as the oceans warm. It is the oceans that are the main drivers of climate and they are warming, with new evidence of temperature changes at the deep ocean level. Overall, the evidence for climate change is overwhelming:

receding glaciers, melting ice caps, seasonal shifts, flora and fauna migration - and more sand in which we can bury our heads.

Why Williams doesn't place his trust in the IPCC's Third Assessment Report I can't understand. I also have no doubts as to where social responsibility lies and it is not in the direction of hoping that this thing will go away or that human ingenuity will allow us to maintain our profligate lifestyle. For the antithesis of social responsibility we only have to refer to President Bush, who affirms that nothing will be allowed to threaten 'the American way', whatever this does to the rest of the world.

Professor Peter Smith RIBA vice-president for sustainable development

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