The Kyoto Protocol is finally in effect to limit the increases in emissions of greenhouse gases. If all goes well, by 2012, it will have reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 483 million tons. So, that's all right then.
There is a slight snag, however. Current construction programmes for new coal power plants indicate that by 2012, China, India and the United States alone are expected to emit as much as an extra 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. This does not include coal burning furnaces in individual buildings.
Meeting the Climate Challenge, a report published in January 2005 by the UK's Institute for Public Policy Research and other international bodies, warns that the current level of 379 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising by more than 2ppm per year and could reach 400ppm within 10 years. This would be enough, it says, to generate a 2 deg C (3.6 degF) rise in global temperature from pre- industrial levels. Many experts now claim that this is the point of no return when feedback effects, such as melting hydrates in the ocean or the death of trees in the Amazon rainforest, will lead to runaway and unstoppable climate change.
Results from the world's largest climate prediction experiment, published in Nature in January 2005, show that temperatures could rise by up to 11 degC, rising to 20 deg C at the poles, where, if the ice stored on Greenland and the Antarctic were to melt, it would be enough to raise global sea levels by 70 meters (230 feet). This is, of course, a worst case scenario and a less severe outcome is much more likely. However, already the land ice glaciers in the Antarctic are moving three times faster because they are no longer blocked by ice shelves.
There is now a real prospect of significant rises in sea level in the lifetime of our grandchildren. More than a third of the world's population now lives within 160 km (100 miles) of a coast, and 13 of the world's 20 largest cities are on the coast. A one meter rise in sea level would make 55 million people homeless in India, and there is nowhere for them to go.,
It is somewhat ironic that Houston, Texas, will be one of the worst hit cities. Built on a river delta, most of the buildings are on low lying bayou land, which was flooded by Hurricane Allison in 1995, even though that was only a category 1 hurricane. Seventy percent of US oil and gas imports come through Houston harbour. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, Houston is unquestionably the number one city, in the number one state, in the number one country in the world. No one talks about climate change in Houston, its school teachers do not teach about it, its bookshops do not carry any books about it and while its large science museum has a MacDonald's, it has no climate change exhibits.
It has become popular to blame the US appetite for gas guzzling sports utility vehicles for their huge emissions of carbon dioxide. After all, their 200 million cars and trucks each releases its own weight in carbon dioxide each year. But vehicles are not the biggest problem - besides the United States has an ambitious programme for manufacturing ethanol from biofuel crops and organic household waste. Even waste paper can be turned into ethanol using new processes developed in Florida. Ethanol can replace petrol quite easily and is carbon neutral.
No, the biggest problem by far, not only in the United States, but almost everywhere, is architects. They seem to be obsessed by form rather than performance, and to act as if they were mesmerised by the thought of possible awards for their concrete and glass high rise buildings, which have enormous levels of embodied energy in the materials used and transported, as well as high energy usage to keep the buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
The average American releases 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, mainly from buildings. In the United Kingdom, the average emission is 10 tonnes per person; in India it is one tonne. To stabilise greenhouse gases, we each have to reduce our emissions to around 0.3 tonnes per year, or about the amount emitted per passenger in a return transatlantic flight. In the worst case, we have only 10 years left to achieve this.
Just in case this is not achieved, the alternative is to adapt our buildings, cities and infrastructure to a world with more floods, more droughts and more storms. Houston may become so much warmer, it will have to move to Canada. In the United Kingdom, the breakdown of the Gulf Stream is increasingly less far fetched a prospect. If it were to happen, Britain could have the same climate as Alaska.
It is hard to anticipate the types of catastrophes our grandchildren might face, but it makes sense to start to adapt as soon as possible.
Risk can be considered in the form of a triangle (Figure 1) with the three sides being hazard, vulnerability and exposure. The growth in the cost of global disasters so far is mainly due to an increase in exposure, with an unprecedented increase in population leading to more people living in areas exposed to natural hazards. It is also due to a growth in vulnerability, especially in developing countries which account for 97% of casualties.
The very poor, the elderly and the very young suffer most.
So the exposure and vulnerability sides of the triangle are increasing.
As climate change increases the hazard side of the risk triangle as well, the consequences could be very serious. From a reinsurance point of view, there is the prospect of a catastrophe clash where different continents have different disasters at the same time, potentially resulting in global economic meltdown. As Prof Sir David King, the UK chief scientific advisor, stated in 2004: "In my view, climate change is the most severe problem we are facing today - more serious even than that of terrorism."
Flooding in England and Wales
Recent reports from the Foresight programme of the Office of Science and Technology show that if current levels of expenditure and approaches to flood management in England and Wales remain unchanged over the next 100 years, river and coastal flood risk could increase between 2 and 20 times. Over the next 75 years, 2 million more people could be at high risk of river and coastal flooding.
Meantime, despite all the warnings, the planning departments of 56% of the councils in England and Wales have allowed properties to be built in flood hazard areas. During 2003, there were 600 developments, mostly residential, many major, permitted on flood plains in England and Wales against the advice of the Environment Agency.
It is estimated that more than 200,000 homes in Britain are already uninsurable due to the flood hazard. The United Kingdom is unusual in offering flood cover as a standard feature of household and most business policies. Unlike much of Europe and the rest of the world, flood insurance will be available to 99% of the UK's 23.5m householders until 2007, thanks to an interim guarantee of cover. After that date, the number of uninsurable properties could increase substantially.
Meanwhile, the UK government is proceeding with developments in Thames Gateway on the edge of London where the housing density will be as high as 200 dwellings per hectare in places, creating such a high concentration of exposure in one small area that reinsurers (and the Financial Services Authority) may baulk at the accumulation of risk.
The position is rather different in Scotland where tight planning controls are now in force thanks to 10 years of sustained efforts by the insurance industry at a local level with planning authorities, almost all of whom now use insurance risk guidance as the basis of their strategies.
Already, the number of storms crossing the British mainland has doubled in the last 50 years, and this is set to increase. There is little sign of building standards in Britain being made tougher to resist the new storms; if anything, changes in building standards have contributed to the vulnerability of our homes. Insurance company data indicate that homes built after the 1971 changes to building standards are much more likely to suffer damage in a storm than older properties. The position may well get worse, thanks to an EU directive which seeks to harmonise standards for construction materials throughout the European Union, regardless of the fact that Britain is far stormier than any other EU country. (Scotland has found a way around this one!)
To make matters worse, insurance is so competitive that cost savings have to be made somewhere. One way is to find the cheapest ways to reinstate damage after a flood or storm, and a recent survey of loss adjusters has found that, rightly or wrongly, many have the perception that this is what the insurers expect of them, resulting in repairs that are less resilient to future events.
Following insurance industry lobbying, the Buildings (Scotland) Act 2003, now gives the Scottish Executive the power to require insurance companies to reinstate properties to a more resilient and sustainable level after a flood or storm. This would avoid shoddy repairs caused by insurers seeking to save money on claims costs.
So the insurance industry really can make a difference, if it is prepared to take a longer term view. In Scotland there has been success in influencing land use planning and building standards. Now it is important that insurers target the architecture profession to persuade them to design new buildings which can survive the impacts of climate change and not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The first step was taken in January 2005 with the publication of a major new text book telling architects why and how they should be doing this.
The book has been very successful in Houston. Perhaps there is hope for the planet after all?
International Climate Change Taskforce, 2005, Meeting the Climate Challenge, www.ippr.orguk Uncertainty in the Predictions of the Climate Response to Rising Levels of Greenhouse Gases, Nature, 27 January 2005, vol 433. www.climateprediction.net/press Crichton, D. 1999 The Risk Triangle, Natural Disaster Management, Ingleton, J., (ed), Tudor Rose, London, England.
Crichton, D., 2005. Flood risk and insurance in England and Wales: are there lessons to be learnt from Scotland? Technical Paper Number 1, Benfield Hazard Research Centre.
Crichton, D. 2005. The role of private insurance companies in managing flood risks in the UK and Europe, Urban Flood Management, eds. A. Szollosi-Nagy (UNESCO) & C. Zevenbergen, A.A. Balkema Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands.
Foresight reports, www.foresight.gov.uk King, D., 2004. Climate Change Science: Adapt, mitigate or ignore, Science, Vol 303, January 2004.
Roaf, S. Crichton, D., and Nicol, F., 2005 Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change Architectural Press, Oxford.
Prof David Crichton is visiting professor at the Benfield Hazard Research Centre at University College London. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Insurance Institute.