Climate change - a huge worry but a massive opportunity

A few days away from London over Easter stuffing logs into a wood burner in the countryside has left me feeling worried about our current global infrastructure priorities.

Antony Oliver

It is, of course, great that David Cameron and George Osborne felt the need this week to celebrate the role that infrastructure continues to play in the UK economic recovery. Sending ministers to the corners of the nation to shout loud about £36bn of investment and 150,000 jobs always leaves a warm glow.

But for all that positivity - and despite the latest subsidies announced for eight renewable projects - I can’t help but feel that we still haven’t really grasped the major issue and the major opportunity facing us all.

“Only major institutional and technological change will give a better than even chance that global warming will not exceed this threshold”. IPCC

I am referring, of course, to the difficult but increasing real and inescapable fact of climate change which is now starting to bear down on the globe with an ominous sense of inevitability. 

A few days lighting fires and putting on jumpers rather than simply whacking up the gas central heating perhaps over-sensitises you to the energy excesses of modern life. But the realities of the legacy that we are likely to leave the next generations are becoming scary.

This week the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began work on its so-called Synthesis Report which will pull together the outputs from three recent working groups looking at the physical science basis of climate change, the impacts, adaptation, and vulnerabilities and mitigation strategies that could be adopted.

And if the evidence of last week’s assessment of mitigation is anything to go by, this final report is set to be a pretty worrying document.

Last week’s report stated that if a “wide array of technological measures and changes in behaviour” were embraced it may still be possible to limit the global mean temperature to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

However, it added, “only major institutional and technological change will give a better than even chance that global warming will not exceed this threshold” pointing out that “to avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.” 

So while David Cameron is right to place investment in infrastructure high his priority list I remain concerned that we are yet to see any move towards the major institutional or technical change demanded by IPCC or any real move away from business as usual when it comes to transport, housing or energy generation infrastructure.

Yet the reality is that if we are to lower global greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70% compared with 2010 by mid-century as required to meet this two degree threshold, radical change will be needed.

The UK really must start to see this threat as an opportunity and invest whole heartedly as a nation in low carbon source of power, in energy efficiency and in the technological solutions that we can export to the rest of the world.

Investment in infrastructure is critical to the economies of the world today. But acting now to invest in low carbon infrastructure is increasingly becoming critical to the well-being of the world of tomorrow. The decision to underpin a rake of renewable projects is a good start - but it must be just the start of the required move from business as usual.

Antony Oliver is the editor of Infrastructure Intelligence

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