Urgent agreement needed on climate

Last updated 13:00 18/12/2012

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OPINION: As Cyclone Evan batters Fiji, having already brought death and mayhem to Samoa, as climate extremes seem more common even in Nelson - with record rains last December and unusually low rainfalls now - and as global temperatures rise and polar ice melts, the latest finding from a group of climate scientists is timely.

A draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, leaked long before it is ready for release and perhaps subject to "tweaking" before being published some time next year, suggests most scientists are more convinced than ever that human activities are responsible for global warming, rising sea levels and extreme weather events.

While some cynics still attempt to deny this premise, the influential panel classes it as "extremely likely" that mankind has caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperatures since the 1950s. This means that the panel assesses that likelihood at more than 95 per cent.

Perhaps the report was leaked in response to news that Canada, Russia and Japan - and New Zealand - have backed out of the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to limit fossil fuel and other greenhouse-gas emissions, joining the United States in a group of polluters that would rather talk about the problem than act.

Regardless of its timing and although the report is simply a work in progress at this stage, its leaking highlights the importance of producing a credible, coherent action plan to reduce harmful emissions that the world can agree on - and soon.

Currently, the developed world is divided in two main camps: those committed to Kyoto and those which have either pulled out or never signed up in the first place. Those not part of the United Nations-led initiative are driven by what they perceive to be their national interests. The apparent increasing frequency of climate extremes suggest that taking significant action to clear the air will prove to be in the national interests of everyone.

Meanwhile, another development suggesting a quantum change in energy thinking has become apparent of late. Fracking is set to reduce the West's dependence on Middle East oil - if not permanently, then at least until new and viable energy sources are developed.

Britain last week lifted a ban on the controversial practice, which pumps materials underground at high pressure to extract oil and gas and, unless well managed, can cause pollution and small earthquakes. It has an estimated $2.86 trillion of underground shale gas deposits to develop, while the US oil industry is currently undergoing an equally dramatic fracking-led surge.

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This development alone suggests the peak-oil fears of the past decade might prove groundless, while also highlighting the even greater need to develop carbon-neutral ways to use the traditional gas and oil resources. It also suggests the urgency of developing robust ways to manage and control the energy industry as it seeks to exploit its new methods.

Some of the richest areas for fracking in Britain and the US - as, perhaps, in New Zealand - are in populous areas, leaving no place for complacency or risk-taking.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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