THE PRIORITY of government climate policy is simply emissions reduction; it should instead be improving the quality of human life.
There is enormous momentum behind present climate policy because of the political and scientific capital sunk into it. Yes; climate temperature has risen for about the last century. Yes; atmospheric CO2 has increased certainly from the 1960s onwards. Yes; CO2 is a Greenhouse Gas. The IPCC is charged with assessing future climate temperatures. If CO2 doubles by the end of this century, then climate temperature (assessed from some 70 separate climate models) is projected to increase between 1.5-4.5°C. Projections are not predictions however! Recently climate scientists have indicated present models run too hot, suggesting the lower end of temperatures could be more likely.
Models are limited by the levels of climate understanding and the quality of information used to construct them. Climate is an open, irreducibly-complex system with many poorly understood feedback effects. Attempts at predicting the far-off future simply transfer the present state of knowledge but with one additional element; in this case elevated CO2 levels. But we can only guess at future population numbers 100 years hence, what transport will be used, the world’s economic activity, the state of its forests, oceans or what unpredictable technology we will have developed particularly for energy generation. All influence climate.
Technology and innovation are developing exponentially; the more you know, the easier it is to discover completely new things. With a digital world, positive feedback in discovery and innovation is inevitable. These unknowables make any attempt at temperature prediction massively uncertain. Action on emissions is necessary not because we understand climate behaviour but because we don’t. It is prudent to use policies that eventually mitigate.
However a climate policy that states at the outset its priority is the quality of human life is both positive and inspirational; in its broadest aspect it leads to emissions reduction anyway but sees these as secondary to life quality. The narrowness of present policy that centres on emission reduction, tends to have unforeseen consequences. Diesel engines used for rail and road transport were lauded because their emissions were lower. But they also generate health-damaging particulates that contribute to the production of black carbon (soot). Phasing them out will be expensive. Black carbon forms from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biomass and biofuels and is probably responsible for current arctic ice melt concerns. One ton of black carbon is equivalent to 600 tons of CO2 in warming terms. Poor air quality in urban environments that again damages human health is exacerbated by carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, methane and other volatiles which interact to generate ozone that is toxic to humans, generates crop losses estimated to be £10-20 billions annually and increases warming. Strict and enforceable regulation would improve health and incidentally reduce emissions.
It was assumed by government that burning wood in power stations would reduce emissions compared to coal. In fact the reverse is the case. As a consequence DRAX, our largest power station, was converted at considerable expense to us to burn wood. But a quality of life scenario would point out that burning wood generates health-damaging particulates and produces much more toxic volatiles than coal; that mankind has disadvantageously reduced forests world-wide by 20 per cent, that leaving trees in the ground and saving associated wild life is better than incineration. Cutting down forests to burn sets a poor example for tropical forest conservation that is vital to humanity's future. Scenarios that prioritise emissions constraint or mitigation for poor countries with large populations inescapably paint a picture of rich countries attempting to foist emissions limits on them and thus preventing their necessary economic development to rightly enrich their populace.
A commitment to a secure, stable and low cost supply of electricity for all humankind with a price below that of coal is surely basic to a climate policy based on quality of life. For large-population countries, nuclear power can fill these requirements but the nuclear industry needs to prioritise the concerns of waste and safety and instead invest in fail-safe, liquid salt reactors using thorium that negate long term waste issues. Renewables are popular in some quarters but are parasitic on a stable electricity supply. Charges for intermittency need to be introduced which will demonstrate that renewables on their own currently fail on the requirement of low cost. For very small remote communities in appropriate places renewables can perform a useful function.
Adaptation is essential to defend the quality of human life. Adaptation is not mitigation. Proactive policies and foresight need to be constructed to ensure resilience in the face of uncertain and sometimes devastating change. A secure and reliable electricity supply and cheap energy production of all kinds is fundamental. Scottish government policies fail on this basic issue.
Professor Tony Trewavas FRSE Chairman, Scientific Alliance Scotland