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How Cambridgeshire is contributing to 'Hothouse Earth' scenario

Scientists are warning we could be heading for Hothouse Earth
Scientists are warning we could be heading for Hothouse Earth

County's carbon emissions revealed as scientists at Scott Polar Research Institute issue global warning

Colin Hayes, of Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge
Colin Hayes, of Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge

After one of the hottest summers on record, is the Earth in danger of burning up?

New figures reveal just how much carbon dioxide is being generated by homes, businesses and road traffic in Cambridgeshire.

Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases which threaten the future of the planet, and overall, emissions in Cambridgeshire have been dropping.

But in the south of the county, the latest statistics reveal, there has been a rise in CO2 produced by cars, lorries and other vehicles.

The figures cover emissions from fuels used by industry and commerce, households (gas and electricity) and transport – roads and railways.

They span a 12-year period, from 2005 to 2016, and have been published by the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Overall, the amount of CO2 pumped into the Cambridgeshire air has dropped since 2005.

That year, 6,186 kilotonnes (6.2 million tonnes) of the gas were emitted across the county, but that figure had dropped to 4,614 (4.6 million tonnes) by 2016.

Envronmental campaigner Tony Juniper. Picture: Paul Musso
Envronmental campaigner Tony Juniper. Picture: Paul Musso

In Cambridge city, the total emissions of CO2 in 2016 amounted to 556 kilotonnes, compared with 781.8 in 2005.

Emissions from transport totalled 109.6 kilotonnes, down from 116.4 in 2005, but up from 104 in 2012.

East Cambridgeshire’s all-emissions total for 2016 was 675.8 kilotonnes, compared with 810.6 in 2005.

But on the transport front, the district also saw a slight rise in emissions over the decade, from 250.7 in 2012 to 275.8 in 2016.

In South Cambridgeshire, efforts to cut carbon dioxide have been hampered by increased transport emissions. Between 2005 and 2016, there was a big reduction in total emissions, from 1,821 to 1,248.7. But on the transport front, the statistics reveal a worrying trend. In 2005, the emission tally on the roads and railways was 630.8 kilotonnes. That figure dropped steadily in successive years, reaching 568.1 in 2013 – but since then, it has increased year on year, climbing close to 2005 levels in 2016, to 628.5.

The heatwave that has hit the UK over the summer has raised awareness about the growing risks of climate change. Scientists believe that future hot spells will be more frequent and hotter due to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The latest statistics coincide with a major report by an international team of scientists, who fear we are heading for ‘Hothouse Earth’ – when global temperatures rise by 2C, sparking heatwaves and sea level rises that could make some parts of the world uninhabitable.

One of the report’s team of authors is Dr Colin Summerhayes, of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute.

Heatwaves are expected to become more common
Heatwaves are expected to become more common

He told the Cambridge Independent: “Overall emissions of CO2 in the OECD countries – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – have flattened as they have worked to increase fuel efficiency and to replace coal burning with gas burning in power stations as well as increasing electricity generation from renewables – especially wind and solar.

“Last year over 50 per cent of the UK’s electricity came from wind and solar between April and June. So we are making progress.

“The main rise in emissions comes from industrialisation in China and India, fed mainly by coal-burning power stations. A large proportion of that effort goes to increasing the wealth and welfare of their own people, but a third of Chinese emissions come from making cheap stuff for us. Much of the OECD’s manufacturing shifted from the OECD countries to the East to take advantage of cheap labour and to provide us with cheap goods.

“This is not a blame game, merely a fact of life in the globalised market economy. The Chinese people have made it plain that they do not like the pollution that has come with industrialisation, and China is now the largest manufacturer of solar panels and wind turbines. They still produce less than half the CO2 per head than Americans do.

“What we must do here, in Cambridge as elsewhere, is continue to diminish our carbon footprint. We can all contribute, by deliberately working to become more energy efficient – eg drive a more fuel-efficient car, take public transport, carpool to work – but we need the Government to keep pushing, to ensure all new house builds are energy efficient, ie well insulated, and to subsidise the renovation of existing housing stock to as near the same standards as possible.

“Moving subsidies from fossil fuels into renewables would certainly help to get the renewables industry running more strongly. Investing heavily in new modes of electricity storage would help, as would encouraging the development of distributed local power generation rather than relying on a few large power stations. Getting local councils to invest in networks of electric charging points to encourage the wider use of electric vehicles would help, as would their moving to electric vehicle fleets and buses.

“There is much that local government can do, but some councils at borough or county level are dragging their feet. We all need to follow best practice.”

The report, titled Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene and published on PNAS, warns: “This analysis implies that, even if the Paris Accord target of a 1.5C to 2C rise in temperature is met, we cannot exclude the risk that a cascade of feedbacks could push the Earth System irreversibly onto a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway. The challenge that humanity faces is to create a ‘Stabilised Earth’ pathway that steers the Earth System away from its current trajectory.

Phil MacDonald, analyst for the climate change policy think tank Sandbag, said the UK has made some progress on energy efficiency, particularly through the quick uptake of LED lightning.

But he added there was still plenty of work to do: “Compared to the continent, our housing stock is coming from a low base. There’s a lot more to be done in reducing domestic emissions, and much of it, like loft insulation or cavity wall insulation, pays back in reduced energy bills almost immediately.”

A Cambridgeshire County Council spokesperson said: “Since 2011, the figures show there has been a marginal increase in CO2 emissions from freight and passenger transport. The A14 from Felixstowe is a transnational freight route through to Manchester and ports to Ireland and this could reflect increased exports and imports across to Europe.

“There has also been a significant amount of new developments being built in South Cambridgeshire including new homes at Northstowe, North West Cambridge and Trumpington Meadows to meet the needs of a growing population which could also explain this increase. Overall carbon emissions per head of population have reduced from nine tonnes in 2011 to eight tonnes in 2016.

“We are working with a number of partners such as South Cambridgeshire District Council to deliver initiatives that will help to reduce CO2 emissions.

“In Cambridgeshire, 23.7 million passengers have used the guided busway since opening in 2011 providing an effective shift away from people using their cars and encouraging people to walk or cycle. We also have a number of initiatives we are exploring to improve our transport and energy systems in order to create the opportunity for better and cleaner transport across the county including smart energy grids at the St Ives, Trumpington and Babraham Park and Rides.

“These projects will generate clean, renewable electricity to power cars and buses from the park and ride sites and in the long term reduce pollution, improving air quality levels locally.”

The chairwoman of South Cambridgeshire District Council’s climate change and environment committee, Cllr Pippa Heylings, said: “We are passionate about doing all we can to be as conscious of the environment as possible. That’s why we’re focused on working with our partners to create green homes and green communities.

There is still much to do to limit carbon emissions
There is still much to do to limit carbon emissions

“We want to see planning applications for developments that plan-in energy efficiency from when homes are built, including not only solar panels but also electric car charging points, rainwater harvesting and battery storage. We want South Cambridgeshire to be a green beacon, and the council is leading by example. Around 2,500 of our council houses have solar panels, as does the roof of our HQ, where we’re keen to investigate the installation of solar canopies too.”

Cambridge-based environmental campaigner Tony Juniper, who is executive director of the conservation organisation WWF, said: “If we are to avoid a climate change crisis then we must act urgently to slash emissions. Cambridge is known across the world as a leading centre for research and ideas and with that has a responsibility to blaze a trail which others can follow.

“That in turn means an aggressive approach towards building energy efficiency, the rapid rise of electric vehicles, encouragement for cycling and walking, the scaling up of renewable energy and the restoration of soils and habitats that hold lots of carbon, such as peatlands and woods.

“All this would make Cambridgeshire not only a climate change leader, but also a nicer place to live.”

Concern over carbon sinks

Along with other substances such as methane and water vapour, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It absorbs heat energy and prevents it escaping from the Earth’s surface into space.

Temperature rises could spell disaster for species such as polar bears
Temperature rises could spell disaster for species such as polar bears

The greater the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the more heat energy is absorbed and the hotter the Earth becomes.

Each year the planet’s forests, oceans and land soak up about 4.5 billion tonnes of carbon that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere, adding to temperatures.

But as the world experiences warming, scientists believe carbon sinks could become sources of carbon – and make the problems of climate change significantly worse.

One ‘perfect laboratory’ for studying how to tackle those problems is Jurong Island, off the Singapore mainland, home to nearly 100 global petroleum, petrochemical and speciality chemical companies – and experts from Cambridge are among those monitoring emissions there.

They are working for the Cambridge Centre for Advanced Research and Education in Singapore (CARES), a subsidiary of Cambridge University based at Singapore’s Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise.

One research project is looking at new ways to transform industrial CO2 emissions into compounds that are useful in the chemical industry supply chain.

Spokesman Professor Markus Kraft said: “Because Singapore is a city state, you’re never too far from the people who have the power to enact policy change. In Singapore, it’s easier to see the impact that certain changes can have on the carbon footprint of the whole country – it’s an ideal test bed for researchers.

“We can then use our results from Singapore as an example to roll out to other cities and other countries.”

Read more

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