Climate change makes extreme weather events more likely as Winchester District’s carbon footprint shrinks

While top international scientists on the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have just reported on global climate change, climate charity Winchester Action on Climate Change (WinACC) has just published the latest of its annual studies of the carbon footprint of Winchester District.

The shocking findings of the IPCC report are that extreme weather events such as flooding by heavy rain and rising sea level, heat waves, storms and droughts are becoming more numerous and more severe.

Although scientists can’t say that an individual storm or other extreme event is caused by climate change, the evidence suggests that such extreme weather events now take place more often because of the changing global climate.

Even if human activity that affects the climate can be stabilised by 2100, there is still a greater than 50% chance of the Earth’s surface temperature being 2°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times by the end of this century. This is well above the level likely to cause dangerous climate change yet achieving a better outcome seems unlikely at present.

In the IPCC’s worst scenario, sea level will be over two and a half feet (over 80 cm) higher by the end of the century than it was in 1986-2005. Some scientists, using a different approach, predict a rise of almost 7 feet (2 m) by 2100.

The global ocean will continue to warm during the 21st century. Arctic summer ice could eventually disappear by 2050. Heat will penetrate from the surface to the deep ocean and affect ocean circulation. Thus currents in the North Atlantic will weaken, perhaps as soon as 2050, thereby influencing the climate in western Europe.

The previous IPCC Assessment Report in 2007 concluded that ‘Warming of the climate system is unequivocal ..’ saying that this was ‘.. very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG [man-made greenhouse gas] concentrations’ and ‘Continued GHG emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century’.

The recent announcement by the IPCC, the first in a series of three IPCC Working Group reports to be published in the next few months, is much graver. One of its main conclusions is that ‘Human influence on the climate system is clear’. It says:

  •  ‘Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.’
  • ‘Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years.’
  • ‘Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.’
  • ‘Surface temperatures will remain approximately constant at elevated levels for many centuries after a complete cessation of net anthropogenic CO2 emissions.’

Bob Whitmarsh, Chair of WinACC’s Science and Technology Advisory Panel, said ‘Global warming is driven principally by fossil fuels which emit the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) when they are burnt. Unless we switch much more rapidly to low-carbon sources of energy, such as wind and solar, the warming will accelerate. Each of the last three decades has been significantly warmer than all preceding decades since 1850. The world is already committed to further warming and sea level rise just from gases already emitted’.

More extreme weather events - heat waves, floods, droughts and severe tropical storms - are on the way across the globe, according to the IPCC. Regions which are currently wet will have more rainfall, and dry regions less. Heat waves will happen more frequently and/or last longer in large parts of Europe. Occasional cold winter extremes will continue.

Projections of future climate on a regional scale are less certain than global predictions. SE England, including Hampshire, will probably have an increased risk of flooding caused by heavy winter rains, and of summer heat waves and even droughts. Even though some research suggests that sea level rise in the NE Atlantic will be less than the global average, coastal areas locally will be flooded during storm surges and extreme high tides as sea level rises.

Looking at the findings of the IPCC report and WinACC’s latest report on the local carbon footprint, Chris Holloway, Director of WinACC, said ‘Unless governments act fast, the outlook for future generations is grim. We need coordinated action by politicians at local, national and international levels.’

WinACC has been working with Winchester City Council for the last 5 years to reduce the district’s emissions by 30% by the end of 2015, relative to 2004.

WinACC’s latest study of the District’s energy and fuel use, and greenhouse gas emissions, from 2005 until 2011 shows it has achieved a 12.3% reduction in emissions overall against the hoped-for 17.7% reduction required to be ‘on target’. Emissions from the domestic and commercial use of gas have gone down most and are closest to being ‘on target’. Diesel light goods vehicle fuel emissions have increased by 12.6% since 2005 whereas car emissions have fallen by 11.8%.

Large commercial and public sector organisations could contribute much more to cutting the District’s emissions. Electricity consumption by these organisations and fuel consumption by goods vehicles were both higher in 2011 than they were in 2005. In total they make up 36% of the District’s emissions.

‘WinACC is very pleased that the Council now has a ‘road map’ to a low carbon economy in Winchester District’ said Dr Bob Whitmarsh. ‘My report shows that emissions from business aren’t going down, whereas local households are cutting the carbon footprint of the energy they use. But we won't meet the Winchester District target by individual action alone. We need commitment and energetic action across the board, with decisive leadership from the City Council.’

The influential local charity is calling on everyone to reply to the City Council’s consultation on the Community Strategy for the next four years by telling the Council to retain the priority to cut the District’s carbon footprint.

Three years ago, the City Council consulted on the draft of the current Community Strategy, which guides the Council’s priorities until 2014, and is supposed to reflect the views of the City Council, hospital, County Council and of course local residents. Over 80 people asked to add a priority to cut the carbon footprint of the district. This was three times as many people as made any other point. The City Council responded to public opinion and made it one of the three priorities.

The Council has now published a draft of a revised Community Strategy for the period 2014-2017 which does not include climate change as a priority. This is inconsistent with other Council policy. WinACC predicts an even stronger community response than before. ‘When scientists across the world are telling us that human influence on the climate is clear, this isn’t the moment for the Council to take its eye off the ball’, said Dr David Knight, WinACC’s Vice-Chair. ‘Local people will let the Council know that climate change is still a top priority for us all.’

Notes for Editors.

  1. The IPCC’s comprehensive Assessment Reports summarise the state of scientific, technical and socio-economic knowledge on climate change, its causes, potential impacts and response strategies. The IPCC does not conduct research itself but summarises the work of others which has been either published, or is in press, in peer-reviewed journals. IPCC reports are prepared by experts, whose appointments are based on nominations by governments and observer organizations, to serve as Lead Authors. Over 830 authors from up to 85 countries are preparing the current series of reports, which encompass over 50 chapters. Around 62% of authors come from Europe, North America, Central America and the Caribbean but over one third of writing team members come from developing countries and economies in transition. Both expert reviewers and governments will have had the chance to comment on the reports before publication. A Summary Report in layman’s language will be published in October 2014.

Further reading:

  • IPCC (2013). Working Group I Contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers. Stockholm, IPCC: pp.36. (available from http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-spm.pdf)
  • Field, C. B., V. Barros, et al. (2012). Managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaption: Summary for Policymakers, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, and New York, NY, USA: 1-19. (available from http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/)
  1. WinACC’s report on greenhouse gas emissions in Winchester District is available on request (Whitmarsh, R. B. (2013). Greenhouse gas emissions in Winchester district: Part III. Estimates and trends (2005-2011). Winchester, WinACC: pp.27).
  2. Winchester City Council is consulting on the refreshed Community Strategy until 28 October 2013. More information at http://www.winchester.gov.uk/about/council-structure/sustainable-community-strategy/consultation/.
  3. Winchester Action on Climate Change was formed in October 2007 to engage every household and organisation in the Winchester district to cut the carbon footprint of the district by 30% by the end of 2015, relative to 2004.
  4. More information from Bob Whitmarsh on 01962 868862 email rbw@noc.soton.ac.uk, or Chris Holloway on 01962 827083 / 07779 283451 email winacc@winacc.org.uk, or from www.winacc.org.uk.
  5. WinACC’s full name is Winchester Action on Climate Change Ltd. It is a registered charity in England and Wales with charity no. 1150754.