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     Volume 5 Issue 89 | April 7, 2006 |

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Food For Thought

Fiddling While Rome Burns…

Farah Ghuznavi

Last month, there was more bad news on the climate change front. Satellite measurements indicate that the area of the Arctic covered by sea ice has, this winter, failed to return to even its long-term average rate of decline (UK Independent). Given the unprecedented melting of sea ice during the last few summers, sufficient formation of the ice cover during winter - to compensate for this - becomes even more important. So the fact that the sea ice formation has been inadequate for that purpose for a second consecutive winter is an ominous sign.

According to one sea ice specialist working at the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre, Mark Serreze, in September 2005 the Arctic sea ice was at its lowest extent since satellite monitoring began in 1979. Given existing trends, it is likely that 2006 will see the situation worsen further.

While the melting of sea ice does not affect sea levels, the Arctic ice cover is believed to be a key moderator of the climate in the northern hemisphere i.e. it is important because it helps to stabilise the massive land glaciers and ice sheets of Greenland, which do have the capacity to raise sea levels dramatically! And of course, any rise in sea levels has implications for human settlements all over the globe, particularly in low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands.

According to Professor Peter Wadhams, of Cambridge University, one of the big changes this winter was the fact that a large area of the Barents Sea has remained ice-free for the first time. While climate change models had earlier predicted a retreat of sea ice in the Barents Sea, this was not expected to happen for a few decades yet. So there is reason to believe that the changes predicted are currently taking place at an accelerated rate.

According to Dr. Serreze, the loss of sea ice, coupled with recent findings from NASA that the Greenland ice sheet may be near a tipping point, makes it clear that the Arctic is beginning to respond to global warming. Among some elements of the scientific community, there is a growing fear that these changes indicate that the effects of global warming may already be irreversible. All of this makes it essential to put in place an immediate strategy for damage control.

Under the circumstances, one would hope and expect that world leaders would recognise the seriousness of the situation and work together to develop an appropriate response. Yet this is not the case. Amidst the wrangling and bitterness over the Kyoto Protocol, and the failure of a number of key countries - including the US - to get involved in measures to combat climate change through reducing carbon emissions, it is clear that there is no consensus over how to address climate change.

To make matters worse, due to scepticism - or worse, all-consuming (less than enlightened!) self-interest - some quarters are actively trying to deny the reality of global warming, and spread misinformation on the issue.

Even in countries that have acknowledged the danger, actions are failing to live up to words. Recently, Britain's credibility as a leader in the fight against climate change suffered a severe blow with the Government being forced to announce that it will not meet its flagship target for reducing the carbon emissions that are responsible for global warming. It is expected that the target to cut UK carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from industry and transport to 20% below the 1990 levels by the year 2010, will be missed by a wide margin.

The Blair Government had promised to "lead the fight against global warming" through the target of a 20% reduction in emissions. Yet currently, carbon emissions are 3% higher than they were in 1997!

With a major policy review underway, the Government had indicated that it would achieve its 20% reduction targets. But in the last fortnight, the Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, along with three senior colleagues, was left to announce the bad news that despite an intensive, year-long review of the measures in the Government's climate change program, the full set of revised policies would now only deliver an estimated cutback of 15% to 18% in carbon emissions.

Not surprisingly, this was met with fury and derision. The 20% target has been the headline Labour Party green pledge since 1994, and this mantra has been repeated in three successive manifestos, as well as the 2003 energy review. According to the UK Independent, "There can be no more flagrant example in all of Labour's years in office of the gross miscarriage of a key policy".

The news has also provided Labour's political opponents with an opportunity to score some points at Mr. Blair's expense, with the shadow Environment Secretary, Peter Ainsworth, commenting that the review was "a grim admission of failure on what was meant to be one of Mr. Blair's top priorities". The Liberal Democrat environment spokesman stated, "It is nonsense to claim that Britain is doing better than any other government…The government has failed to meet the goals it sets itself, and is also failing by comparison with more enlightened foreign governments."

While Government sources blamed higher energy prices (causing a switch from gas to coal) and higher-than-expected economic growth for fuelling the increase in carbon emissions, others - such as the Green MEP Caroline Lucas - have pointed to inconsistencies in the Government's rhetoric on tackling climate change, and the reality of its policies of road-building, airport expansion and encouraging low-cost airlines and private transport, all of which exacerbate CO2 emissions.

This raises the unpalatable issue of possibly needing to sacrifice some degree of economic growth, in order to reach environmental targets. According to the Independent, "The lesson that can be drawn from the spectacular failure…is to realise how hard it is to cut carbon emissions by tinkering at the edges of a capitalist economy in full growth mode..." Unsurprisingly, Mr. Blair - in an echo of his friend Mr. Bush - has proved strikingly resistant to acknowledging this possibility.

The environmental lobby was scathing in its response to the admission of failure to reduce emissions. Friends of the Earth termed the Government's performance "pathetic" and called for a new law to make it legally responsible for reducing UK carbon emissions. According to Greenpeace, "even Arnold Schwarzenegger (the Governor of California) has more demanding carbon reduction targets than the UK"! And the World Wide Fund for Nature said Mr. Blair's credibility over climate change was "in tatters".

For a government that has portrayed itself as taking an International lead on climate change, the failure of this policy is highly embarrassing, and raises unavoidable issues of credibility. There are different opinions within the government about these priorities, and observers have pointed to fierce arguments behind the scenes between the ministries representing different economic sectors. In another echo of the US, interests representing business have consistently blocked the efforts of Mrs. Beckett's department, which deals with the environment.

But the bottom line is, as long as the Government continues to fiddle with piecemeal reforms, avoiding the radical measures required, even the revised plan to combat climate change risks being too little, too late...

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