The recent agreement at the Paris conference on climate change, COP21, is according to Barack Obama “the best chance we have to save the one planet we have”.
The ambitious aim of keeping climate warming to 1.5°C may prove overly-optimistic, but at least the target makes scientific sense. Whether this is achievable will depend on governments around the world keeping their promises to limit and ultimately reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
Climate change is maybe the greatest 21st century challenge that societies will need to address over the next decades.
There is now no serious discussion around the cause of current climate change: the burning of fossil fuels and land use change are the key drivers. Any other claim is mere disinformation put out by well known vested interests.
Emissions to date will lead to an increase in the global average temperature by at least 1°C by 2100, with greater warming at higher latitudes. Most simulations now put to expected rise in global temperature at between 2 and 4°C by the end of the century, depending on actual energy pathway chosen for the remaining part of the century.
A 2°C increase will result in dangerous climate change with significant costs to humanity in terms of health and impacts on economies.
In 2000, climate change caused the loss of 5.5 million disability adjusted life years globally, mostly attributable to diarrhoea, malaria and malnutrition.
A 2°C rise in global temperature would lead to about 50 million more people being exposed to malaria, with millions more at risk of malnutrition and starvation. Hence the belated realisation by world governments that aiming to limit climate warming to 1.5°C might be wise.
Globally, the total CO2 emissions to date are relatively small compared to the total CO2 that would be emitted if all fossil fuels were burnt.
Vast global reserves of unconventional oil and gas exist, and total coal reserves are more than 50 times larger than the coal already burned.
With the need to wean ourselves of fossil fuels to stick to the recently agreed COP21 targets, this is no time to expand the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
Shale gas is portrayed as “environmentally friendly” by fossil fuel firms as well as by cheerleading governments, like the UK’s.
The dangers posed by “greenwashing” shale gas as a route to climate change mitigation, are obvious.
Shale gas represents an additional source of fossil fuel emissions will delay the transition to renewable and low carbon energy sources.
This is particularly so as shale gas releases 30% methane during production than conventional gas production, and over 100 years the carbon footprint of shale is actually similar to that of coal.
So, in addition to all the localised health impacts of shale gas, which are well documented, and which have lead national and regional governments such as France and New York State to ban fracking within their borders, shale gas will also be particularly negative in the fight to limit climate change.
Decreasing greenhouse emissions will require the use of less fossil fuels, making the search for new sources of fossil fuels seem particularly perverse.
Fracking will extend the fossil fuel age, and thus will significantly increase the cost of mitigation actions required to maintain a liveable climate required to support human societies. Fracking for shale gas is completely incompatible with climate change mitigation.
UK government policies on fracking and climate change mitigation are superb examples of lack of any joined-up thinking when dealing with climate change and the environment generally.
Efforts to expand exploitation of fossil fuels in whatever form should cease.
Climate change-friendly alternatives are available and must be encouraged to limit the “need” for fossil fuels and move to a truly sustainable future.
Over the long-term, the cost to society, including in the UK (the recent floods are a small scale example of things to come), will be greatly reduced.
Surely the central purpose of any government is to protect the health and wellbeing of their people, now and into the future. Does the UK government have other priorities?
Dr Philip L Staddon is Associate Professor in Global Change Ecology at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University Department of Environmental Science in Suzhou, China