Global warming - there's hope amid the gloom

Here we go again. On Monday the world’s governments and top climate scientists will publish the most devastating assessment yet of what global warming threatens to do to the planet. And that, in turn, will intensify a new bid to forge an international agreement to tackle it.

World leaders will meet in New York in September to address climate change for the first time since the ill-fated 2009 Copenhagen summit. Then they assemble again in Paris in December next year to try once more to conclude a pact to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases. But they are approaching it in a very different atmosphere from five years ago.

Not that the scientific warnings are any the less severe – quite the reverse. Monday’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to be released in Yokohama, Japan, is still being completed. But its final draft predicts that, unless speedy action is taken, floods and droughts will greatly increase, “hundreds of millions” of coastal dwellers will have to flee their homes, and the yields of major crops will fall even as population grows.

It will follow another IPCC report, in September, stating with at least 95 per cent certainty that humanity is heating up the planet. A third, to be published next month, will conclude that not nearly enough is being done to head off disaster. And this week a World Meteorological Organisation report concluded that recent extreme weather – such as our floods, the icy American winter, and an unprecedentedly hot 2013 in Australia – are consistent with global warming, while the Met Office warned that heatwaves worse than the one that killed 2,000 Britons in 2003 will blight most summers by the 2040s.

Last time, such warnings were almost universally accepted, but they now fall on much more sceptical ears. That is partly because the predecessor to Monday’s report contained several inaccuracies, most notably vastly overestimating the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are melting.

Over the intervening years, fashionable scepticism has replaced fashionable concern over climate change. And government leaders, traumatised by their experience in Copenhagen, have tended to stay quiet.

So while expectations were sky-high for what was dubbed “Hopenhagen”, they are rock-bottom for Paris next year. Yet it is possible that the present pessimism is equally misplaced. For there have also been more positive changes.

Almost unnoticed in Britain, the two main obstacles to agreement in the Danish capital – the United States and China – are taking a lead in combating global warming, no small thing considering that they together account for two-fifths of world emissions. President Obama – who privately feels his record on climate change was the biggest failure of his first term – has made it a top priority for his second.

Unable to get climate laws through a Republican House of Representatives, he is instead resorting to executive orders to cut carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles and power stations. Together with the rapid expansion of shale gas – less polluting than coal – these are likely, unexpectedly, to enable the US to meet the target of a 17 per cent reduction by 2020 unveiled, to widespread scepticism, in Copenhagen.

Even more improbably, China, which burns about half the world’s coal, is beginning to move away from it, partly to clean up the smogs that kill an estimated quarter of a million of its citizens each year. Scores of planned new coal plants are being scrapped, while in December the national energy administration announced that, for the first time, more renewable energy than fossil-fuel power generation capacity joined the grid in the first 10 months of 2013. Some expect China’s emissions to peak in the next decade.

The two governments have agreed to cooperate, and the US is prioritising an international agreement in Paris. Meanwhile 61 of the 66 countries responsible for 88 per cent of the world’s emissions have passed legislation to control them: in all, nearly 500 laws have been adopted worldwide.

There is also a shift from seeing combating climate change as sacrificing growth to realising that it can increase it.

Renewable energy is taking off; it’s worldwide capacity is already over 10 times what was predicted at the turn of the millennium. And opposition to action is beginning to fade. One survey shows that even most US Republicans under the age of 35 regard sceptics as “ignorant”, “out of touch” or “crazy”.

It could, of course, all yet go horribly wrong, as in Copenhagen. Even at best, no agreement in Paris is likely to match up to what is needed to control global warming.

But, despite the prevailing gloom, a more solid basis for making a start on tackling the threat may be coming into place than in the heady atmosphere of 2009.

Smelling a bit fruity? Then don’t eat so many tomatoes:

Fancy a tomato? They’re both delicious and good for you; studies suggest they reduce the risk of cancers and stroke. But now it seems they may also make you – how to put it? – smell.

A peer-reviewed paper, published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, proposes that the fruit – brought back from the Andes by Spanish conquistadors – is a “main source of under-arm odour”. It adds that lycopenes, antioxidants that protect against diseases, are to blame for this “deeply unpleasant problem”, producing strong-smelling compounds called terpenes.

The paper’s author, J C M Stewart, a County Down biochemist, traces his theory to smelling a bit, er, fruity himself. One hot summer he found that “colleagues became restless and routinely opened windows in my presence”, and he “eventually realised that I was the centre of a perfect pong”. Alas, “a scrupulously cleansing shower each morning” did not sort it.

He detected the same odour on “tomato hairs”, stopped eating the fruit “forthwith” and has never been “troubled” since. Last year he experimented with them and other terpene-rich foods, concluding that the smell from just one 250g serving of tomatoes “lasts for more than a week”.

Enough, you might say, to give anyone the pip.

Finally, Ofgem is turning the heat on energy companies:

At last the cat seems to be fighting its way out of the bag. The referral of the big six energy companies to the Competition and Markets Authority, by the hitherto supine Ofgem, promises finally to reveal the murky pricing practices of some of the most deservedly distrusted companies in the country.

Already we know that millions of people may have been charged too much for their energy. Since 2010, apparently, domestic energy prices have increased four times faster than inflation and at nearly 10 times the rate of average earnings.

And over the last four years the Big Six’s profits rose almost five times over, to £1.1 billion.

All this rather puts into perspective their protestations, far too readily believed by ministers, that they were being forced to raise their prices by “green taxes”

that actually made up no more than £37 on an average fuel bill of more than £1,250.

Measures they were supposed to undertake to provide insulation for poor families added to this sum, but they were heavily cut at the companies’ instigation, saving them £1.3 billion and enabling them to sell an extra £360 million of fuel.

The investigation is long, long overdue.

Geoffrey Lean pioneered the coverage of green issues long before they became fashionable and has won Scoop of the Year in the British Press Awards and the Martha Gelhorn Award for investigative journalism.

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