Climate change theology Talk 2

Home » Blog » Climate change theology Talk 2
environment, green, nature

The Theology of Climate Change — 2. The Politics

Assessing the impacts of global warming

There is a great deal of work trying to assess how the changes in the climate system will impact on society. This is not easy to accurately predict though there are obvious ramifications from sea level rise (flooding etc) or from melting of the Himalayan glaciers which will affect the fresh water supply of over a billion people. One of the most influential reports was the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Commissioned by Gordon Brown in 2005, the report was written by Sir Nicholas Stern, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. Stern concluded that:

All countries would be affected by climate change, but the poorest countries would suffer earliest and experience most impact
Average temperatures could rise by 5 degrees C if climate change was unchecked
Warming of 3-4 degrees would result in many millions of homes being flooded. And potentially 200m people permanently displaced due to rising sea levels, floods and drought.
Warming of 4 degrees or more was likely to seriously affect food production
Warming of 2 degrees could leave 15-40% of species facing extinction
Before the industrial revolution levels of GHGs were 280 ppm CO2e and he argued that the rise needed to be limited to between 450 and 550ppm CO2e as anything higher than that would substantially increase the risks of very harmful effects.

Stern wrote that "Climate change is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen."

He suggested important policy proposals:

Carbon pricing, taxation, emissions trading and regulation, so that people understood the price of their activity
A technology policy to drive large scale development and use of a wide range of low carbon and high efficiency products, with increased R&D to support this

Economically, he concluded that:

Unabated climate change could cost the world at least 5% of GDP each year, whilst the cost of reducing emissions could be limited to 1% of GDP each year.
If a wider range of risks were taken into account the cost to the world could be the equivalent of 20% of GDP each year.
Each tonne of CO2 caused damage estimated at $85 whilst emissions could be cut for less than $25 a tonne.
By 2050 the market for low carbon technologies could be worth at least $500bn
Shifting the world to a low carbon path could eventually benefit the global economy by $2.5 trillion each year.

Therefore, the economic benefits of strong, early action significantly outweighed the costs of not acting.

Concepts used in the discussion of the Impacts

Tipping Point
The name given to a threshold for abrupt and irreversible change. We may move from one stable state to another, but the next state may not be conducive to life. IPPC AR5 concluded that precise levels at which these occur were uncertain, but that risk increased with rising temperature. Examples of tipping points include: Boreal forest dieback; Amazon rainforest dieback; loss of polar ice packs and melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets; melting of permafrost leading to excessive methane release.

Climate sensitivity
Climate sensitivity due to CO2 is often expressed as the temperature change in degrees C that occurs from a doubling of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere. Without including feedback effects, a doubling of concentration would lead to a forcing of 3.7w/m2, resulting in warming of 1 degree. If feedback is included, such as water vapour, ice albedo, cloud, lapse rates etc. warming would be 3 degrees + or — 1.5 degrees.

Actions which are taken to limit the magnitude or rate of climate change i.e. they tackle the cause. They include: reducing the emissions of GHGs; developing carbon sinks and technologies such as carbon storage and capture (CCS). CCS in the US is called Carbon Sequestration, and it involves capturing CO2 from large emission sources (i.e. those that produce >100kt CO2/year) and transporting and storing it in a suitable deep geological formation such as a dis-used coal mine or oil field. Sequestration can also be achieved biologically (bio-sequestration) e.g. through reforestation.

Actions taken in response to climate change in order to reduce the vulnerability of social and biological societies i.e. they deal with the consequences. This could include flood defences, rainwater storage, insurance etc. Adaptive capacity is the ability of a nation to respond to climate change. Poorer nations generally have lower capacity than richer nations. There is a political debate about the equity of those responsible for emitting GHGs who do not take action to mitigate, which leaves those who are most affected to deal with the consequences. Generally speaking those most severely affected and unable to cope are the poorest (both poor countries and poor people).

b) The International Response — UNFCC and Kyoto

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came into force on 21st March 1994 and has been ratified by 197 countries. It was a product of the "Rio Earth Summit" in 1992. The principle objective of UNFCCC is the "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." This is to be achieved "within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner." UNFCCC placed the onus on developed countries to lead the way in combatting climate change (referred to as "Annex 1 countries") as they were the principal contributors to the rise of GHGs.

Once a convention is signed and ratified, the participating countries form the "Conference of the Parties" (COP) which meets annually to review progress. If these meetings result in further treaties, for example the Paris Agreement in 2015, the signatures to that treaty form their own COP. The Bonn Climate Change Conference to be held in November 2017 will combine: the 23rd session for the COP on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP23); the 13th session of the COP for the Kyoto Protocol (CMP13) and the 2nd session for the COP on the Paris Agreement (CMA2).

The Kyoto Protocol (COP3, adopted 11th December 1997) was the first attempt to implement UNFCCC by committing industrialised countries to stabilise their GHGs. Countries that ratified the Protocol agreed to reduce emission of six GHGs that contributed to global warming: Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrous Oxide, Sulphur Hexafluoride, HFCs (Hydroflurocarbons) and PFCs (Perfluorinated Compounds). The Protocol set binding emission reduction targets for 37 industrialised countries and the European Community. Kyoto was important for establishing the architecture for CO2 reduction:

Reporting and verification procedures
Flexible market-based mechanisms — the idea of Carbon trading
Compliance reporting

Its target was to reduce worldwide GHGs to a level 5.2% below the 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012 (called the First Commitment Period). When compared to the levels that would have occurred if the Protocol had not been implemented this was estimated to be a cut in real terms of 29%.
Countries were given a year in which to sign the protocol (from March 16th 1998) and governments were required to ratify it within their legislation. It was agreed that the protocol would become legally binding on those countries 90 days after two conditions had been fulfilled:

It had been ratified by the governments of at least 55 countries involved in UNFCCC, and
The signatories accounted for at least 55% of the world's CO2 emissions (1990 emissions)

The first condition was met on May 23rd 2002 and the second in November 2004 so the Protocol didn't become binding until February 16th 2006 — 9 years after the conference! Although hailed as a breakthrough, Kyoto was implemented much more slowly than expected and caused controversy because Bill Clinton signed on behalf of the United States but Congress refused to ratify it because they felt that it would harm the USA's economy — President Bush later rejected it outright. Subsequent conferences, at Marrakesh (2001, COP7) and Doha (2012, COP18, CMP8) extended Kyoto but some countries opted out of the extension, such as Russia and Canada. In practice the Kyoto Protocol has largely been superseded by the Paris Agreement (2015, COP 21)

Carbon Trading (Emissions Trading Systems — ETSs)
Kyoto introduced the concept of carbon trading schemes to create a market mechanism to drive down carbon emissions. Kyoto envisaged a network of world-wide schemes but this has been slow to develop. ETSs apply to: energy production and consumption; the production of materials that require high energy usage to produce; and disposal of materials that lead to GHGs, other than recycling. They are typically "cap and trade" schemes, because they set a cap on total allowable emissions and permit trade in allowances as part of the incentive for participation.

The governing authority sets an overall limit on emissions (the "cap").
Allowances are issued to participants permitting them to emit GHGs; each allowance is for one tonne of CO2e.
The cap reduces each year so that overall emissions begin to fall.
At the end of each year participants must surrender enough allowances to cover the emissions they have produced, or pay a heavy fine.
However, if they have surplus allowances these can be kept for future use or sold to companies that have exceeded their permitted limits (the "trade"). The market price is governed by supply and demand of available allowances.

The UK introduced the first multi-industry carbon trading system in the world in March 2002. The EU
ETS was introduced in 2005 and is the world's largest, applying to 31 countries (the 28 EU members plus Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway) and limiting emissions from more than 11,000 heavy energy-using installations — accounting for 45% of total EU GHG emissions. Two auction markets exist for European Union Allowances: the European Energy Exchange (EEX) in Leipzig and the ICE Futures Europe in London. However, most growth in ETSs in recent years has been in Asia.

The Paris Agreement (COP21)
The Paris Agreement in 2015 was a significant step because it required all Parties (not just industrialised countries) to develop plans to reduce emissions through Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The objectives of the Agreement were:

To limit temperature increase to 2 degrees C or less by 2100
To reach global peaking of GHGs as soon as possible and then reduce
For all Parties to produce plans that show how mitigation is to take place (the NDC) and to report on progress every five years. Each NDC should be more ambitious than the last.

The Agreement required ratification from at least 55 countries which accounted for at least 55% of global GHG emissions. This was achieved and the agreement came into effect on 4th November 2016 (less than a year after adoption).

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) in 1998 to provide a clear scientific view of the knowledge of climate change and its environmental and socio-economic impacts. IPCC does not conduct research or monitor data, its function is to assess scientific, technical and socio-economic information related to climate change. 195 countries are members of IPCC and its plenary sessions are attended by government representatives and scientists. There are three working groups:

The physical basis of climate change
Climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability
Mitigation of climate change

IPCC's main activity is to provide assessment reports (ARs) on the status of our knowledge on climate change. The latest AR (the 5th Assessment Report) was finalised in November 2014 (

The UK Response — the UK Climate Change Programme

The UK Climate Change Programme (CCP) was launched in November 2000. The UK CCP went beyond the Kyoto target and set a more ambitious UK target of a 20% reduction by 2010. It generated a number of measures trying to use market mechanisms to stimulate behavioural change, including the Renewables Obligation (from 1st April 2002) by which all electricity suppliers were required to generate a proportion of their electricity using renewable sources; and Green Deal — a policy to encourage energy efficiency improvements in the UK housing stock financed though loans attached to the energy bills of the improved properties (Green Deal ended in 2015).

The Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006 provided a statutory duty to combat climate change with the UK Government and the Climate Change Act of 2008 established a duty on the Secretary of State (at DECC) to ensure that the net UK carbon account for all 6 Kyoto Greenhouse Gases was at least 80% lower than 1990 levels by the year 2050. This was achieved through a series of "Carbon Budgets", each of 5 years' duration, beginning with the period 2008-12. At least three budgets must be in place, covering a 15 year period and the Secretary of State must ensure that the net carbon account does not exceed the budget. S/He is also required to publish: The annual emissions of the UK, annual removals of GHGs for the UK, net emissions, the methodology used to calculate these and whether the trend is getting better or worse.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and UK Carbon Budgets
CCC is an independent statutory body which advises the UK government on the Carbon Budgets to be adopted. The budgets must take into account: scientific knowledge about climate change; technology; the economy and fiscal circumstances; social circumstances (e.g. fuel poverty); energy policy and national and international politics. Each budget assesses the cost of implementation, offset against opportunities for economic growth and lower costs associated with greater fuel efficiency plus savings due to greater health and well-being associated with better environmental quality (e.g. reduced air pollution). The estimate is that the cost of implementation of the fifth carbon budget will be a net cost of less than 1% of GDP. In practice, a significant component of the carbon budget is dealt with by the EU ETS, (referred to as The Traded Sector). The fourth carbon budget (for the period 2023-27) caps emissions at 1,950Mt CO2e (a 52% reduction below 1990 levels) and the fifth carbon budget (for the period 2028-32) will cap emissions at 1,765Mt CO2e, (57% below 1990 levels). The budgets are implemented through a variety of mechanisms that seek to encourage behavioural change, such as: legislative changes e.g. to road and fuel tax; government incentives e.g. the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI); design standards for buildings etc.

You may also be interested in

Webteam: Mon 11 Jan 5:29pm

Borderlands' Chaplain David Gwatkin's blog about his life of faith and farming is available to read on the Methodist Church in Britain website. here to...

Webteam: Thu 03 Dec 10:14am

Nick Read is to be made a Prebendary of Hereford Cathedral. Historically the prebend was a gift of land used to support the work of the Cathedral staff, and the recipients had a seat (the prebendal stall) within the Cathedral. Today the title is honorary, and sadly there is no land attached, but it is an honour to be selected as the numbers are limited to the number of prebendal...

Nick Read: Thu 05 Nov 3:12pm

Remembrance Day 2020We have become used to looking at graphs and discussing statistics, with over 1 million people affected, and a death toll approaching 48 thousand. We have also become used to wondering where the truth lies, because some say there are more than 60 thousand fatalities; it's how you make the count. We have become used to looking at maps of the world and seeing how the...

© 2019 - 2021 Borderlands Rural Chaplaincy

Working with people or all faiths and none