How technological advances underpin hope for climate change adaptation
Lord Hunt says there is a growing consensus that tech advances can help maintain standards of living for richer nations while allowing the poorer ones to continue developing
Governments across the world are making their final preparations for the landmark UN climate change summit in Paris which begins next month. The event is one of the most ambitious environmental conferences for a generation, and while the likelihood of a deal is growing, it remains unclear how bold and comprehensive it will be.
With all countries involved in setting a framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, parliamentarians, industry leaders and academics met last month in advance of the summit. These talks explored a range of practical but potentially transformational strategies that will enable governments to agree on fair targets for different regions and types of country.
The scientific consensus reflected in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports is that the global average temperature over land and ocean surfaces will rise by some 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, and then continue rising if economic growth based on current technology and agriculture is not reversed.
However, last month's meeting expressed a broad emerging consensus that technological transformation could enable standards of living in the industrialised world to be maintained, while also reducing carbon emissions enough so that developing countries can grow their economies and therefore their emissions up to global per capita levels.
Most countries are equally concerned that environmental policies must also deal with the impact of increasingly severe natural hazards caused by global environmental changes, and special regional effects such as burning forests, the melting of polar ice, desertification and the spread of diseases. As the UN goals of long-term sustainability have emphasised, societies need to become significantly more resilient. This adaptation requires many aspects to be replanned for the future.
This growing confidence about the potential for future technological and green energy transformations in the developed world is underpinned by several factors. Firstly, there is greater belief that, in some countries, reliable and economic technology will provide sufficient capacity for non-fossil energy, especially wind, solar and hydro, for electricity and even transport.
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However, winds can be weak and variable, and clouds can obscure solar radiation, so back-up energy supplies are used from hydroelectric, or geothermal, or from nuclear fission, which is contentious.
The shift towards low-carbon energy for transport, which uses about 30 per cent of generated energy, is also controversial. Some countries have been introducing fuels that partially reduce carbon emissions, although these fuels, such as diesel, increase air pollution, and are at the centre of the recent scandal surrounding Volkswagen.
One immediate measure to bring down carbon emissions is to reduce the speed of road vehicles, shipping and aviation.
Some 30-40 per cent of total energy supply in developed countries is accounted for by heating and other services in buildings, and the total amount per dwelling is increasing because of larger use of water, ventilation, and information technology. However, as these uses become smarter, total energy use can be reduced substantially. Progress is now also coming from remarkable advances in materials technology for insulation and structural use.
Governments need to seize the opportunity in Paris to frame their agreements for the long term, based on evidence of the growing effectiveness of low-carbon policies. As some governments already recognise, these developments also provide a springboard for innovative industry and agriculture.
However, policies should be consistent with overall sustainability strategies to ensure greater resilience of societies and infrastructure against the effects of natural and artificial hazards. These are only likely to worsen until the human effects on the global environment are brought under much better control.
Lord Hunt is a visiting professor at Delft University of Technology and former director general of the UK Met Office