Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Threat of climate change should be treated like war say engineers

13 Nov 2009

Britain must adopt a 'war time footing' to tackle catastrophic climate change, a major report has warned.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) said it would be almost impossible for the UK to meet ambitious climate change targets to cut greenhouse gases by 80 per cent by 2050 without drastic action. The only way to reach the target would be to "go to war" against carbon emissions, its report said. This would mean setting up a Department of Climate Security to act like the War Cabinet and co-ordinate action across every other Government department.

Unemployed people would be trained in making homes more energy efficient, factories would make solar panels and schools would encourage pupils to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. Money would be pumped into wind turbines, nuclear energy stations and solar panels as a matter of urgency. Individuals would also be expected to "do their bit" by reducing the amount of energy used in the home, flying less and switching to public transport rather than driving cars, the report said. Personal carbon allowances that limit the amount of energy used on transport, heating and flying could also have to be introduced.

Even then, the report said that the UK would have to adapt to a certain amount of global warming by building flood defences, making buildings cooler and changing the way cities are designed. 'Geo-engineering', such as artificial trees, that suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, would also have to be used in order to meet targets. Tim Fox, lead author of the report, said the population must adopt a "war mentality".

"What we are illustrating is the scale of the task before us and putting that into perspective. If you were fighting a war it would certainly need a certain level of rationing beyond what we see today to enable us to deliver the [cuts in carbon] that will still be lower than those the scientists tell us to deliver."

If the UK is to meet its legal requirements to cut emissions by 80 per cent on 1990 levels by 2050 – even if energy demand is reduced by half – it would still need to build 16 nuclear energy stations and 27,000 wind turbines by 2030, and use biomass, solar, waste, tidal power and wave energy and smart grids. Dr Fox said it was unlikely engineers will be able to build the infrastructure needed on time. "From all the evidence to date it is clear we're losing the battle with climate change. We're facing a requirement to decarbonise the economy at an unprecedented rate, which hasn't been seen in industrialised nations before."

The best rate of cutting emissions the UK has ever achieved occurred during the "dash to gas" in the 1990s. But even if the same rate was achieved now, the UK would still be 330 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over the 2050 target. Dr Fox suggested the UK make up the difference by installing around 100,000 artificial trees. "The Institution believes it's time to go to war on climate change. It's about to attack and it's time to defend ourselves and fight back," he said. Professor Kevin Anderson, director of leading climate institute the Tyndall Centre, supported the idea of a war footing to tackle climate change, including rationing.

He said people in countries like Britain may have to accept a level of "discomfort" by reducing energy and even a "loss of liberty" by travelling less but these changes in lifestyle will prevent worse suffering in the developing world due to climate change as well as the costs to our own society in the future. "Whatever the cost is of avoiding climate change – and we might think it's high – it's much lower than the costs of not avoiding dangerous climate change," he said.