Expert warns Europe must act now to tackle climate change

British peer Nicholas Stern says time to wake up to the urgency of impending calamity

Europe has to step up its effort to combat climate change and wake up to the urgency of the situation, climate change expert Nicholas Stern has said before crunch UN talks in Paris later this month.

Europeans need to end subsidies for fossil fuels, multiply energy efficiency efforts, improve mass public transport systems and accelerate the rollout of electric cars in order to live up to their commitments, said the British peer.

Decisions taken at the Paris summit, opening on November 30th, will shape the world’s carbon course for the next two decades, which in turn will determine whether there is a chance of avoiding a global temperature rise of more than two degrees, considered to be the threshold for dangerous climate change.

“In human history it’s a one-off . And what we map out in the next two decades will be absolutely critical,” said Lord Stern. “Whether we can live in our cities – breathe in them, move in them – all of this will be defined by the decisions we take. I don’t think the criticalness of these 20 years is sufficiently understood.”


Lord Stern's word were echoed by high-ranking UN science adviser Prof Jim Skea, who agreed that the European Union needed to go beyond existing pledges of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent by 2030.

Prof Skea, from Imperial College London, said Europe needed to raise that pledge to at least 45 per cent, and ideally to 50 per cent. “If we were in the upper end of the 40s it would be perhaps the lowest-cost way of getting to the ambitious improvement in the long term,” he said.


His claim will be controversial among governments and some powerful industries who are concerned that they are already at a disadvantage because restrictions on pollution are so much tougher in Europe than in other parts of the world. The UK steel industry is among the claimed casualties.

More than 140 countries have already submitted plans for cutting their emissions before the talks in Paris. On Friday the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) said the offers fell significantly short of what was needed for a 66 per cent chance of stopping the average temperature rising by 2 degrees or more.

The EU’s pledge is among the most ambitious, though analysis of the policies of the 28 member states suggests they are not yet on track to fulfil it.

"They [the EU] were leaders, and they vacillated," said Lord Stern, who is now chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and a cross-bench peer. "They have to do better than that [40 per cent], but I think they are rekindling."

The EU were leaders, and they vacillated. They have to do better than that, he added.

For the EU to increase targets and meet greater emissions cuts, governments will need to resist political pressure to prop up their coal industries, and the European commission must reduce allowances in the emissions trading system even more quickly than planned, said Prof Skea, who was appointed co-chairman of the working group on mitigation, which compiles five-yearly reports for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Both measures would meet opposition, including in Germany and Poland.

The Unep projection said country pledges so far would be likely to generate emissions equivalent to 54 gigatonnes of CO2 in 2030, higher than current emissions but 11gigatonnes lower than if no action were taken.

To meet the ambition of a “likely” chance of avoiding more than two degrees warming, the figure needs to be reduced to 42 gigatonnes by 2030, and a carbon-free world economy in the second half of this century, it said.

The calculation does not take account of thousands of pledges being made by companies, industry groups, cities and regions or provinces, many of which are more ambitious than the countries they operate in.

In recognition of how important those further cuts could be, organisers in France are hosting the once fringe players in prestigious central locations. Organisers are even hopeful that the planned "Paris Outcome" statement by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius will include these promises.

“The cities and businesses are credible,” said Lord Stern, author of a seminal report arguing that catastrophic climate change would cost the world’s economies more than trying to stop it. “If you get this right it could be so attractive; if you get it wrong it will be so difficult.”


Lord Stern also warned Europe could not be complacent about the effects of climate change.

“Europe is warming faster than many other parts of the world,” said the economist.

“Some extreme weather events have increased, with southern and central Europe seeing more frequent heat waves, forest fires and droughts. Many parts of southern Europe could face desertification if global average temperature rises by significantly more than 2 centigrade degrees.”

Heavier precipitation and flooding is projected in northern and northeastern Europe, with a heightened risk of coastal flooding and erosion.

“The European land temperature over the past decade has been on average 1.3 degrees [centigrade] higher than in the pre-industrial era, compared with a global average rise of about 0.8 [degrees centigrade]. Impacts vary across the European Union but all member states are exposed to climate change. The Mediterranean basin, mountain areas, densely populated floodplains, coastal zones, outermost regions and the Arctic are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts.”

– (Guardian service)