Daily carbon dioxide levels have exceeded 400 parts per million, according to last Thursday’s US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report. This has never happened before in human history: the last time was between three and five million years ago. As measured from the top of a Hawaiian volcano it was a really bad day on planet Earth.
Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) warned that we “have entered a new danger zone”, with profound threats to human society. “In the face of clear and present danger, we need a policy response which truly rises to the challenge. We still have a chance to stave off the worst effects of climate change, but this will require a greatly stepped-up response across all three central pillars of action: action by the international community, by government at all levels, and by business and finance”.
These threats to human society also impact the millions of other species we inequitably share the planet with. A study in Nature Climate Change this week paints a stark future for wildlife, with around two thirds of plants and one third of animals under serious threat if we don’t act fast enough to limit emissions.
Yet for all this the UK’s overall carbon footprint is still growing. Last month the Committee for Climate Change highlighted the discord between the figures reported as part of our legally binding commitments under the Kyoto Protocol (requiring a reduction of 7% below the baseline emissions year of 1990), and what’s really going on.
It turns out we’ve been offshoring those emissions for the last 20 years. China is now the world’s manufacturing centre: the emissions happen over there, so not our problem even if it is us buying all that stuff. Globalisation is complete, even to the point of exporting emissions. But our true carbon footprint, as far as anyone’s best guess goes, is 10% higher than it was two decades ago. The UK is now the world’s second biggest importer of embodied carbon emissions.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change’s defence of the discrepancy is almost pathetic. “For specific reasons” it uses three different ways to “estimate” greenhouse gas emissions. The first relates to those emissions happening within our territorial boundary. The second rather baffling method is based on UK “residents”, including the emissions of UK businesses overseas and excluding overseas business operations in the UK. The third is the Full Monty, including all those emissions that we have outsourced to places like China, India and Brazil.
Unforgivably, given that we are generally exporting those emissions to countries without Kyoto commitments, we report “our” emissions using the strictly UK-only method. Neither lies, damned lies nor statistics will hold back global warming. Only global action will, but that starts at home.
Nick Atkinson, Carbon Leader