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A Matter of Degrees
Mike Robinson, Chief Executive, RSGS

This week sees not only Earth day, but also the climate day for the Scottish parliamentary elections. As a result I was asked to speak at a fringe event at the STUC conference in Dundee on the need to take action to mitigate climate change in Scotland.

Avoiding a 2°C rise in global average temperatures is a good idea, in the same way that you would want to avoid a 2°C rise in your own body temperature. Human body temperature is normally given as 37°C (or 98.6°F). If your body temperature rose by 2°C you would have a fever (102.2°F). Current projections for the planet are the equivalent of a body temperature of 41°C (or 106°F) or more.

Yet health underpins everything. Without our health it is difficult to function normally, to work, to concentrate ”“ even to eat. And it is the same for the planet. If the earth doesn’t have it’s health (by which I mean stable conditions suitable for all current life forms), then much of what we take for granted also becomes difficult or impossible.

A 2°C rise would mean that temperature variations were more extreme. It would also increase the ”˜energy’ in the atmosphere, meaning more precipitation, stronger airflows, and greater storm intensity, although locally some parts of the world could experience much greater increases whilst others remain less affected. This is why the Inter-governmental Paris Climate conference at the back end of last year began to recognise the need to ideally keep temperature increases down to below 1.5°C.

Scotland currently has the most stringent climate abatement targets in the world, with an interim target of reducing emissions by 42% (from 1990 levels) by 2020. The annual targets, set in tonnage terms, have not been achieved despite being relatively modest in the first few years. However, the targets have not been missed by much, and whilst it is arguable that more could have been actively done to ensure they were, it does look certain that we will achieve the 42% target after all. This is in part because we are not far behind these targets, but it is also in part because the 1990 baseline figure has been more accurately calculated (because of better scientific data), so, more through luck than judgement, we are in a better place than the annual targets suggest.

However, these targets were agreed with a 2°C threshold in mind. With the 2015 Paris Climate conference recognising the need to keep temperatures below 1.5°C perhaps there is an opportunity to both revise these targets to take account of the new base line, and revise the commitments upwards to reflect the need for greater urgency and effort. A higher target of 50% or more by 2020 would better reflect that urgency and give an incredible example to the rest of the world to accelerate their ambition.

Nonetheless, targets are only that, and it is essential that policies are put in place to ensure their achievement, otherwise it is all just a lot of fluff. But this issue is not going to go away and the bolder we are in confronting it, the sooner we can face up to the future with confidence and help others around the world to do the same.

Of course, each of us will also, to a degree, contribute to these targets, one way or the other. The real tests, both personally and nationally, are going to be the decisions we make about how we travel, about how we heat our homes, how we produce electricity, how we grow our food, the waste we create and what infrastructure we invest in.

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