A STAP member’s review of climate happenings in 2018

 In Blog

By Bob Whitmarsh

My personal view of 2018 was that it was a year that contained some setbacks but also it was a year full of positive happenings which provide hope for the future. I’ll start my review at the international level and finally drill down to the level of Winchester District and WinACC itself.

In October the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its eagerly awaited assessment on the likely impact of 1.5 degrees of global warming. I have to admit I haven’t read the full report, only the 34-page Summary for Policy Makers. This repeatedly makes the almost obvious point that 2 degrees warming will be worse, to varying extents, than 1.5 degrees. The main result however was the message reported, not entirely accurately, throughout the media that we have only 12 years before 1.5 degrees is reached.  Actually the report says that “Global warming is likely [meaning a 66% chance to a dead certainty] to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate”. This gives us a little more time but should not detract from the sense of urgency with which we approach our efforts to reduce our emissions.

Meanwhile, we continue to read of devastating extreme weather events. Obviously the recent fires in California with a depressingly large expected death toll spring to mind; in addition, in September typhoon Manghkut hit the Philippines, described at the time as the world’s strongest storm of 2018 in which dozens died (only to be superseded a month later by the sustained 180 mph winds of typhoon Yutu elsewhere in the west Pacific). Earlier in the year the UK experienced the ‘Beast from East’; then the long, dry, hot summer, which adversely affected farmers, their livestock and vegetable crops, was expected to push up prices. It’s too early to directly and scientifically attribute these – and many other – extreme weather events of 2018 to global warming, but the evidence from earlier years for a connection seems to stack up inexorably.

The President of the United States appears to deny anthropogenic global warming, yet he is widely disregarded in his own country and is only partly able to seriously damage climate mitigation actions in the USA or elsewhere. On the other hand a lot is going on at city and state level to mitigate climate change.  For example, California aims to be completely carbon neutral by 2045 and is working with New York and Washington in the Climate Alliance of 17 US states committed to achieving the goals of the Paris agreement. Perhaps a more serious and immediate concern will be the actions of the new President of Brazil who apparently clearly intends to ‘develop’ the Amazon rainforest.

Evidence is also accumulating that global warming is having a severe effect on biodiversity and the so-called sixth extinction of species. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) reported that “Half of plant and animal species [are] at risk from climate change in world’s most important natural places”. As I write this in mid-November we are hearing how supporters of the new UK movement ‘Extinction Rebellion’ blocked bridges in London last weekend in protest at the lack of real progress by the UK government in telling “the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency” and its failure to “reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens”.

Within the UK, the Conservative government has had a largely appalling record of ineffective and inconsistent policies to save energy. Although their policy of closing coal-burning power stations has led to a 40% reduction in the carbon footprint of electricity since 2010 in June, in its annual progress report to parliament, the Committee on Climate Change has rightly taken the government to task for a lack of action on emissions from industry, transport and housing. The government continues to support fracking with complete disregard for the wishes of local people and the undeniable logic of leaving fossil fuels in the ground; it announced it will stop feed-in tariffs for domestic PV panels next April even if householders continue to export electricity to the national grid. In October the UK Export Finance (UKEF), the UK’s export credit agency which underwrites loans and insurance for risky export deals as part of efforts to boost international trade, stated that it is considering finance for an expansion of an oil refinery in Bahrain which would allow its total output to increase up to a maximum of 380,000 barrels per day. Research conducted by the Overseas Development Institute, CAFOD and others shows that in the last measurable period, 99.4% of all energy support provided by UK Export Finance (UKEF) went to fossil fuels. This madness has to stop.

One bright spot for me in 2018 was that the BBC seems to have not only abandoned its policy of always inviting a global warming denier to be interviewed alongside a climate activist, but it also regularly broadcasts items about global warming and even, on occasion, presents news items in the context of global warming. This is substantial progress.

I found some solace in events in Winchester district. For me, one of the highlights of the year was the poetry competition for 11-16 year olds organised jointly by the Winchester Poetry Festival and WinACC in memory of Robert Hutchison who founded both organisations.  Well over 100 youngsters penned their views on climate change in verse and the winners and runners up attended a prize-giving in early October. WinACC launched its new web site which is proving popular with users now able to more easily locate information they are seeking. Green Week in October was also very successful with a WinACC supported event on most days and I hope that this can be repeated in 2019 and beyond.

WinACC produced its eighth annual report on the district’s carbon footprint based on government figures for the 12-year period 2005-2016. These data provide a clear indication of trends in emissions from electricity, gas, road transport and land use and forestry. While emissions from most sectors decreased slightly, those from road transport grew since 2013. The number of commercial goods vehicles on the road has been increasing over three and a half times faster than the number of cars. Part of the solution seems to be to discourage the large numbers of vans and cars from entering Winchester and the larger towns and villages by improving public transport, reducing parking spaces in car parks and even discouraging on-street parking.  There are welcome signs that the emerging Winchester City Movement Strategy will address these problems. There has also been a large reduction in electricity emissions in the district, as elsewhere in the UK, caused by the government closing down coal-burning power stations and taking advantage of the growth in renewables.

One of the reasons for planning a new leisure centre in Winchester was the energy costs and large carbon footprint of the River Park Leisure Centre. The new Leisure Centre at Bar End has now been approved by planners but the carbon footprint has taken a back seat. The Council is proud that the carbon emissions per square metre of floor space is expected to be less, but the increase in floor area means that, at least according to one estimate, the total footprint of the new centre will be 50% greater than before!

To end on a personal note, my wife and I find it increasingly hard to save more energy at home having essentially run out of practical actions to take (see my book ‘Achieving a low-carbon household’ at tinyurl.com/alch98). However, we travelled to southern Spain and back by high-speed train for our holiday this year and letting the train take the strain saved almost a tonne of carbon dioxide compared to flying from Southampton to Malaga and back.

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