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Monday, 18 October, 1999, 16:47 GMT
Climate 'next century's biggest challenge'
If carbon concentrations rise unchecked, the Amazon forest faces devastation
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

The United Kingdom Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, says the world will have to go far beyond the measures it has so far agreed if it is to cope with climate change.

He was speaking at the launch of a report by the UK Meteorological Office's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, entitled Climate change and its impacts: Stabilisation of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main gas caused by human activities that is contributing to the warming of the atmosphere.

Inaction will mean many more hungry people
The Hadley Centre research assesses the global impacts of stabilising atmospheric CO2 concentrations at two different levels, 550 parts per million or 750 ppm.

Concentrations now are about 360 ppm, but will continue to rise as emissions increase.

Mr Meacher said: "The research shows there is still time to act. The message is very clear - we have got to take early action if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change and buy time to adapt."

Without any stabilisation, the researchers say, the probable rise in CO2 concentrations by the 2080s would mean:
  • devastation of the Amazon rainforest
  • widespread hunger, water shortage and an increased flood risk
  • nearly 300 million more people at risk of malaria
  • a global temperature rise of about three degrees Centigrade.

But stabilisation at 550 ppm of CO2 would mean the world could avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change, or at least delay them for up to a century.

The only major consequence of the crisis that would show little improvement is sea level rise, where the inertia of the system means significant increase appears to be inevitable, whatever mitigation measures are adopted.

Only a start

The international agreement on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, commits signatories to a global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of about 5% (on their 1990 levels) over the next decade.

But the gases have a long life in the atmosphere, and stabilising concentrations is a very different matter.

Michael Meacher: climate "the biggest challenge"
Mr Meacher acknowledged the difficulties. He told BBC News Online: "It is our firm intention in the European Union to stabilise concentrations at 550 ppm".

"That may well mean reductions five or six times greater than we agreed at Kyoto. It will require a fundamental reassessment by the governments and peoples of the world of their behaviour."

"This is perhaps the biggest challenge of the next century."

A report last month by the UN Environment Programme said stabilisation at under 550 ppm would mean the annual mean CO2 emission for the whole world would need to be about five tonnes per capita per year during the next century, and below three tonnes by 2100.

US not involved

"Current levels are about four tonnes per capita as a world average, with a maximum emission of nearly 20 tonnes per capita in North America."

"Meeting all the targets agreed at Kyoto will have an insignificant effect on the stabilisation levels of CO2."

Mr Meacher said he had "no idea" when the US, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, would ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
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