Exactly a fortnight from today, the United Nations climate change conference opens in Copenhagen. Its purpose is (or was) clear: to agree a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.
Under Kyoto, all those developed nations that ratified the treaty (all, in practice, except the US) agreed to cut their carbon emissions to 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. The successor treaty, to be agreed at Copenhagen, was intended to secure a cut in global emissions, from the developed and developing world alike (and China has now overtaken even the US), of 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, leading to more or less total decarbonisation by the end of the century.
As Gordon Brown declared in his Guildhall speech only a week ago, Copenhagen must “forge a new international agreement … [which] must contain the full range of commitments required: on emissions reductions by both developed and developing countries, on finance and on verification”.
This is a pretty tall order; and, needless to say, nothing of the sort will be agreed. Even if the Kyoto 5 per cent cut is achieved, it will be only because the developed world has effectively outsourced a large part of its emissions to countries, such as China and India, without Kyoto constraints. Not only is 50 per cent rather more severe than 5 per cent, but (except in the unlikely event of world industry migrating to Mars) a global target removes the escape route of outsourcing emissions.
Moreover there is a strong moral argument, too. The reason we use carbon-based energy is simply that it is far and away the cheapest source of energy, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
Switching to much more expensive energy may be acceptable for us in the developed world. But in the developing world, there are still tens of millions of people suffering from acute poverty, and from the consequences of such poverty, in the shape of preventable disease, malnutrition and premature death. So for the developing world, the overriding priority has to be the fastest feasible rate of economic development, which means, inter alia, using the cheapest available form of energy: carbon-based energy.
Mr Brown’s Copenhagen objective will, happily, not be achieved. But the meeting will still be declared a great success. Politicians do not like being associated with failure, so they will make sure that whatever emerges from Copenhagen is declared a success, and promise to meet again next year. This will at least give our political leaders the time to get themselves off the hook.
The greatest error in the current conventional wisdom is that, if you accept the (present) majority scientific view that most of the modest global warming in the last quarter of the last century — about half a degree centigrade — was caused by man-made carbon emissions, then you must also accept that we have to decarbonise our economies.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I have no idea whether the majority scientific view (and it is far from a consensus) is correct. Certainly, it is curious that, whereas their models predicted an acceleration in global warming this century as the growth in emissions accelerated, so far this century there has been no further warming at all. But the current majority view may still be right.
Even if it is, however, that cannot determine the right policy choice. For a warmer climate brings benefits as well as disadvantages. Even if there is a net disadvantage, which is uncertain, it is far less than the economic cost (let alone the human cost) of decarbonisation. Moreover, the greatest single attribute of mankind is our capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. By adapting to any warming that may occur over the next century, we can pocket the benefits and greatly reduce the disadvantages, at a cost that is far less than the cost of global decarbonisation — even if that could be achieved.
Moreover, the scientific basis for global warming projections is now under scrutiny as never before. The principal source of these projections is produced by a small group of scientists at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU), affiliated to the University of East Anglia.
Last week an apparent hacker obtained access to their computers and published in the blogosphere part of their internal e-mail traffic. And the CRU has conceded that the at least some of the published e-mails are genuine.
Astonishingly, what appears, at least at first blush, to have emerged is that (a) the scientists have been manipulating the raw temperature figures to show a relentlessly rising global warming trend; (b) they have consistently refused outsiders access to the raw data; (c) the scientists have been trying to avoid freedom of information requests; and (d) they have been discussing ways to prevent papers by dissenting scientists being published in learned journals.
There may be a perfectly innocent explanation. But what is clear is that the integrity of the scientific evidence on which not merely the British Government, but other countries, too, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, claim to base far-reaching and hugely expensive policy decisions, has been called into question. And the reputation of British science has been seriously tarnished. A high-level independent inquiry must be set up without delay.
It is against all this background that I am announcing today the launch of a new high-powered all-party (and non-party) think-tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (www.netzerowatch.com), which I hope may mark a turning-point in the political and public debate on the important issue of global warming policy. At the very least, open and reasoned debate on this issue cannot be anything but healthy. The absence of debate between political parties at the present time makes our contribution all the more necessary.
Lord Lawson of Blaby was Chancellor of the Exchequer 1983-89. He will be speaking at an Institute of Economic Affairs debate on climate change at the Institute of Directors in London today