10 Jul 2013

Climate Change: heresy and science

Nick Cullen

Nick Cullen is a Partner, Research & Development, at Hoare Lea and sits on the BCO's Environmental Sustainability Group (ESG).

Over the past few years he has been very active in BCO Research and played a key member in the team behind Good Practice in the Selection of Construction Materials (March 2011). 

In a selection of blogs from the BCO's ESG Nick shares his views on Climate Change...do you agree?

I have spent the past 16 years of my professional life arguing the case for carbon reduction within the business and property sectors. I have used data and analysis from globally renowned scientists and policy makers - the case for action seemed irrefutable.

What’s more, it seemed important that the UK, the birth place of the fossil-fuelled industrial revolution, should lead the way and commit to a near carbon free future. Arguing for this was easy, what’s not to like? Well, the short term financial cost might be one thing, but this was easily countered by arguments about externalities and the long-term benefits of a green economy.

And yet over these 16 years something odd has happened: global temperatures haven’t risen as predicted. The upward trend forecast by the climate models has failed to materialise, despite CO2 levels punching through the 400ppm level in May. The actual global temperature is on the verge of being lower than the low range of climate prediction.

This isn’t due to any action taken by mankind, we have still managed to pump 100 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere over the first decade of this new millennium. In truth, climate scientists have yet to understand why the climate is not responding in line with model predictions, and they continue to update their models as data builds. This is the nature of science. Global Climate is complex and perhaps we have been unrealistic about our expectations of the science. Understanding how our global climate responds, climate sensitivity, to the undoubted increase in greenhouse gases is now the focus of many climate scientists.

Rather like a flat lining economy, there are mixed signals. While global temperatures may have not increased, averages can disguise a multitude of other signals. There have been temperature increases more locally, most notably in the polar regions leading to a decrease in the amount of Artic sea ice.

What does this mean for the UK? Should we continue with the current raft of policies that will directly increase costs, particularly to businesses and individuals, at a time when we are struggling to grow our economy and when fuel poverty is increasing? A significant proportion, 28%, of the domestic electricity bill is attributable to environmental measures and £300 billion of investment is required by 2020 to adapt our infrastructure to enable our low carbon future.

While I confess to heretical thoughts on the subject of climate change, I am going to hedge my bets. The precautionary approach remains a sensible response to the uncertainties of climate science and we can’t wait until the science of climate is better understood. The basic principles of mitigation, such as improving resource use efficiency, are sound. However, the successful transition to a low carbon economy requires considerable investment and a successful economy above all, perhaps we should at least consider whether the fact that the planet's climate does not appear to be as sensitive to CO2 as first thought, may justify a pause.

For further information covering the topics raised in this blog you can take a look at the following BCO Research papers, which have been produced in association with the BCO Environmental Sustainability Group:

At a time when Germany is in the midst of a rapid transition to renewable energy, which is said to be the country's biggest and most expensive project since the fall of the Berlin wall (see article from www.bbc.co.uk/news), should we be following suit? Or do you agree that we should be taking a brief pause? Post your comments on our LinkedIn Group BCO Online.

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