CLIMATE CHANGE: 350 PPM Too Ambitious, Say Lawmakers

  • by Julio Godoy (copenhagen)
  • Inter Press Service

A British economist and researcher on climate change, Fankhauser said the limit he is urging is the only way to avoid the irreversible bleaching of coral in coastal areas, with all that this implies for people's livelihoods and the environment.

As evidence for his claim, Fankhauser quoted new scientific results from marine biologists and zoologists in Australia, the U.K. and Kenya, who published a joint study Sept. 29 in the Marine Pollution Bulletin reporting that when the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) rises above 350 ppm, 'most reefs worldwide are committed to irreversible decline.'

This is a major concern, given the key importance of coral reefs in providing food and environmental resources to one billion people in the poorest countries of the world, Fankhauser told the Oct. 24-25 legislators forum in Copenhagen.

Acidification of seawater due to uptake of CO2 from air causes coral to lose the algae that live in symbiosis with it and provide it with food. Without the algae, the coral loses its colour and becomes bleached; it is less able to reproduce and is exposed to diseases, and if the bleaching process is not reversed, the coral dies.

The forum in Copenhagen was convened by the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment (GLOBE), and attended by 120 legislators from the Group of Eight (G8) most industrialised countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), emerging economies Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa, and Australia, South Korea and the host country, Denmark.

The present concentration of CO2 in air is 387 ppm, and rising. A goal to limit atmospheric CO2 to 450 ppm is being discussed at preparatory negotiations for the 15th United Nations Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 15), to be held Dec. 7-18 in Copenhagen, which is to try to reach agreement on new emissions reduction targets from 2012.

Carbon dioxide concentration in air is measured as the number of CO2 molecules divided by the total number of all molecules in the air, including CO2 itself, after water vapour has been removed. The result is expressed as parts per million, so that a value of 0.0004, say, is expressed as 400 ppm.

Faced with Fankhauser's proposal, the chair of the GLOBE forum, British MP Barry Gardiner, asked the 120 legislators present whether they believed limiting CO2 concentration to 350 ppm by 2050 was practicable.

Only two legislators said yes. Reacting to such a display of pessimism, Gardiner told the meeting: 'We should be terrified.'

'If you of all people do not believe that an ambitious goal is realistic, then we are lost,' he said.

This is more emphatically so, given that GLOBE leaders said the forum was organised 'to decide on key guiding principles to enact climate change legislation' in the participating countries, in order to 'make a significant step towards limiting global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius, to avoid devastating runaway climate change.'

Other world leaders taking part in the forum, like Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, said the forum was 'a critical staging point ahead of the formal COP 15 negotiations' to draw up a new climate change treaty.

Indeed, at the legislators forum, economists, environmentalists and officials from international organisations presented updated scientific information that confirmed the seriousness of the environmental and social crisis facing humanity.

'Based on current trends, energy-related emissions of CO2 would more than double by 2050 and put the world on a catastrophic trajectory that could lead to temperatures more than five Celsius degrees warmer than pre-industrial times,' World Bank managing director Graeme Wheeler told the forum.

Meanwhile, 'the number of people living in extreme poverty is increasing,' and already represents 'some 1.4 billion persons, more than twice the population of Europe,' Wheeler said.

According to Wheeler, none of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) approved in 2000 by the United Nations for fulfilment by 2015, based on 1990 indicators, will be met.

The MDGs commit governments to reducing extreme poverty and hunger, ensuring universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child and maternal mortality, combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases, guaranteeing environmental sustainability and forming a global partnership for development.

Wheeler said climate change is increasing the risks associated with underdevelopment and poverty, and the poorest countries, especially in Africa and South-East Asia, 'will bear 75 to 80 percent of the costs of the damage' caused by global warming.

Since the industrialised countries are largely responsible for the build-up of greenhouse gases causing climate change, negotiations for a new international treaty involve 'serious equity and moral considerations,' he said.

But the strictly economic case to reduce climate change and global warming is also compelling, said Fankhauser, who does research at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, at the London School of Economics.

'Action against climate change might cost up to three percent of the world's GDP during the next 40 years,' Fankhauser told IPS. 'But this price is still cheaper than doing nothing about it.'

Measures against global warming are also stimulating green-friendly business and generating large economic benefits around the world, he said.

'The global climate change sector is already booming. Revenues generated by measures against climate change have surpassed 500 billion dollars in 2008, and could be worth some two trillion dollars by 2020,' Fankhauser said.

On the other hand, the damage caused by failure to act is enormous, he said. The bleaching of coral reefs is costing up to 375 billion dollars a year through destruction of food sources and of the climate-regulating and cultural services provided by coastal and offshore areas.

Fankhauser noted that almost 500 million people, representing eight percent of the global population, 'live within 100 kilometres of reef ecosystems, and benefit from these services.'

Up to one billion people depend on fish from shallow coastal waters dominated by coral reefs. In Southeast Asia alone, coral reefs, mangroves, and sea grass ecosystems generate some three billion dollars in annual income, Fankhauser pointed out.

'Another important service provided by coral reefs and healthy seashore ecosystems is climate regulation and coastal protection, through carbon sequestration, waste treatment, and protection against hurricanes and the like,' Fankhauser said.

For all these reasons, the British expert asked the GLOBE legislators forum to consider the ambitious goal of limiting atmospheric CO2 concentration to 350 ppm. But the vast majority of pro-environment lawmakers at the meeting felt this was out of reach.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service