- Appendix 4 -
Climate science & policy beyond 2013
- Reproduced from Climate Change: Biological & Human Aspects 2nd edition (2013) -
With this book’s first edition (2007) Cambridge University Press kindly afforded
a couple of pages as Appendix 4 to allow a brief summary of the IPCC’s 2007
assessment (AR4) at the book’s final page-proof stage: that assessment literally came
out a couple of months before this book’s first edition was published. This time the
IPCC’s 2013 assessment (AR5) will come out several months after this edition sees
light of day and so I now use this appendix in a different way.
In the course of lectures and encounters following this book’s first edition I have
invariably been asked a number of questions as to my personal thoughts, as opposed
to recounting the climate science and policy developments. Other than commenting
on likely prospective research and policy analysis avenues, in the main I have
shied away from answering, especially as most people have expected me to be predictive:
what will happen to such and such in coming decades? And of course
nobody can predict the future. Having said that, I do have some personal thoughts
on climate science and policy. Given that there has been interest in my own take
beyond that of appraising the literature, I now make a couple of points in this short
appendix, quite separate from the main body of the text: I do not wish to contaminate
my earlier (hopefully) sober review of the science and policy with wilder personal
First, on the policy front, I feel sincerely that there is a pressing need for the
way nations account for fossil carbon emissions to be more rigorous. It is not just
that international aviation and shipping emissions are excluded, but the problem
of economic carbon leakage between nations. The way the figures are currently
calculated purely relate to a nation’s in situ greenhouse gas emissions. To take the
UK as an example, carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq) greenhouse gas emissions
have – according to the way they are currently calculated – been in decline since
1991–2 to the present (2011 being the last full year of data at the time of writing).
Yet the UK imports manufactured goods and also imports very roughly half its food.
Fossil energy and fertiliser (part fossil-based) are used to provide these. Of course,
some of this currently unaccounted fossil carbon will be offset by UK exports, but
only a proportion: the UK is by far a net importer of unaccounted carbon. When
looking at UK emissions, and those of other individual nations, what is needed are
additional metrics to take this carbon leakage into account. Nations need to know
how much greenhouse gas emission their citizens are causing through their ‘total
net emissions’; that is, imports less exports. Of course, care needs to be taken to
avoid double accounting but the bottom line is that a further metric still is needed:
the net total fossil carbon used to generate a pound (or dollar), which is effectively
total net emissions divided by GDP. This is a measure of the economy’s fossil carbon
Some may say that additional metrics will make life too complex. This is a specious
counter argument. We are already used to multiple metrics for many commonly
reported dimensions to modern life. For example, we are all used to multiple metrics
to assess a nation’s economy, such as its GDP, trade deficit, rate of currency exchange
and employment level.
There is currently some discussion over the need for additional emissions metrics.
Indeed, as this book goes to press (2012), the UK’s all-party House ofCommons Select
Committee on Energy and Climate Change is holding an enquiry into Consumption-
Based Emissions Reporting, with the Select Committee’s conclusions due out at the
end of the year. The good news is that the country’s Parliamentary Select Committees
sometimes produce incisive reports. The bad news is that many Select Committees’
conclusions can be bland when it comes to a politically controversial topic such as this
one, and sometimes they miss the point, especially where enquiries are on a technical
topic, again as is this one. Furthermore, even if the Select Committee produces a
bold report, the UK government is not obliged to adopt its conclusions (though it is
obliged to respond to the points the committee makes) and, of course, other nations
need not take any notice at all.
Nonetheless, proper accounting is vital if decisions are to be evidence-based: the
null position being that the decision-making process is ill informed. Does anyone
need reminding that the 2008–9 global financial crash was due to lack of accounting
with due diligence, when sub-prime mortgages were incorrectly valued? Or that the
Eurozone crisis that began in 2011 was caused by at least one nation’s ‘creative’
accounting of its national debt?
The importance of proper accounting for emissions is not just because accounting
provides the evidence and the evidence needs to be sound (and this should be reason
enough), but because the aforementioned financial crises were based on notional
resources, not genuinely physical ones. In both these cases it was notional value (based
on currency) at the root of the problems and not a real resource: it was not the failure of
an agricultural region, or collapse of a mine, that caused the problem: crops carried on
growing regardless of stock market performance. Conversely, climate change does
affect agriculture (ask the farmers in Australia’s Murray-Darling basin), extreme
precipitation does affect the physicality of homes (ask the residents of England’s
Boscastle), sea-level rise does reduce land area (talk to people from Tuvalu) and
the intensity of hurricanes is changing (a concern to those in the Caribbean and
south-east USA), to take just a few examples. This puts the difficulties of the 2008–
9 and 2011–12 financial crises into perspective when compared with the real-world
pressures on society that are arising out of climate change. Yet if we fall foul of purely
human constructs of notional value, what will happen when real physical resources
The second point that I feel is worthy of consideration is one that will be extremely
challenging for my ecologist colleagues: the need to consider species and ecosystem
translocation as part of global conservation and climate mitigation. Not only are
some species threatened by climate change, and so arguably could do with a helping
hand to colonise new areas, but ecosystems are one of the key ways the Earth
system (or biosphere) is regulated. Past major carbon isotope excursions (CIEs) see
carbon cascade (often – at least in part, if not in the main – biologically mediated)
from one biosphere reservoir to another, be it soil carbon, oceans, wetlands and so
forth, via the atmosphere. Reducing atmospheric carbon is difficult but in part might
be achieved through the translocation of ecosystems based on climate projections
together with Earth system considerations. This will not involve just forestation, but
requires us to assist climate change-driven ecosystem change and succession. This is
in contrast to maintaining ecosystems in their present locations in the manner of their
current natural potential, which is the basis for much current ecosystem management
(conservation). This is using biological systems to manage the cascade of carbon
across the CIE event on which we are now embarked (irrespective of the triggering of
any initial Eocene analogue) so as to help regulate the atmospheric carbon dioxide.
It must be emphasised that this is not referring to forestation per se as we could plant
many forests today only to see some of them release their carbon tomorrow as the
world warms and biomes shift.
However, species translocation is not only controversial in itself (for some very
good reasons, such as the unforeseen ecological impact of invasive species): some
current ecosystems that might be considered for such management have international
conservation status. Yet can we continue as we are and should we ignore ecological
ways to manage the global carbon cycle? Such questions have so far largely been
avoided but perhaps we need to start seriously considering them. Eventually, as climate
change progresses, it is likely that policy-makers will start asking such questions and
ecologists will be expected to provide the answers. Surely now is the time to start the
debate in earnest. Here, the learned ecological societies across the world are among
those best placed (but not the sole players) to facilitate this dialogue.
These are just two personal thoughts that I present to you for consideration. It is
likely that a number, if not many, reading this book are either already professionally
in place to take forward discussion of one or other of these points, or will be so in the
future (for instance, today’s students1). I leave it up to you.
1.) To facilitate any online discussion I will post this appendix as a page to which you can link. (This page is it.) Just search online for this appendix’s title.
Biological & Human Aspects 2nd edition (2013).
News update spring 2014: The following year (2014) the IPCC's Assessment Report 5 (AR5) Working
Group II (WGII) report was published. It includes this concern that
some species will not be able to move as biomes shift with climate change and that some species will not be able
to keep up. Though readers of Climate Change: Biological & Human Aspects will have already discerned this.
News update summer 2014: The House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee has
published its report in which it calls for the Government to initiate a public debate on
managing species distribution in the face of climate change... Well, the final paragraph of Appendix 4 (above) does say that as climate
change progresses, it is likely that policy-makers will start asking such questions and
ecologists will be expected to provide the answers...