17 March 1989 - 19 March 1989

Environmental Damage and Climate Change

Chair: Sir Hugh Rossi MP

Of the numerous themes running through this conference, the one that struck a layman most forcibly was uncertainty. With commendable honesty the scientists stressed that in matters relating to the environment and the implications for the climate of the planet, there was still great uncertainty, about not only the degree of expected change but, in the view of some, its direction: and in some areas, notably the ocean, we are still profoundly ignorant. Since policy-makers need a measure of certainty, or at least a reasonable basis for cost-benefit analysis, the principal message from the conference is the need to devote adequate resources to research. In addition, however, policy-makers need to be assured that the actions they take will not have consequences that exacerbate the problem through “positive feed-back”. Again research must be the key.

In approaching the topic there was a clear division between those, the minority, I thought, who inclined to the view that things were not as bad as they had been painted, that some of the results of change might even be beneficial, that pressure groups and the press had alerted public opinion to the problem and that there was now some risk that policy-makers might over-react and be pressed into premature, unnecessary, costly and possibly imprudent action; and those who argued that time was short and that the situation was nearing the point when the speed of change in the environment would be out of control. For the latter, it was stated, for example, that the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the last 30 years had equalled the build-up in the whole 180 years from the beginning of the industrial revolution until 1958. The figures for other greenhouse gases and pollutants were similar or worse, and rising. Of these emissions, the industrialised world accounted for some 75%. The questions that needed to be considered were whether there was a sustainable level of emissions, how and when we could decide what that level was, and what we could do meanwhile to buy time.

The conference divided into three groups to consider the problem from three aspects, the atmosphere, the sea and the land, in full recognition that all three are linked and inter-react, as indeed do the various elements of the problem within those areas. Thus a warming of the climate because of the greenhouse gases is likely to produce increased production of methane on land and, on the balance of probabilities, a rise in the sea-level with all the consequences which would flow from that for coastal areas and the populations that live in them (although a body of opinion argues that the rise may be small or that there could even be a fall, since a warmer climate would produce greater evaporation and ice formation at the poles - a clear case for more research). The role of the oceans as a carbon sink, though vital, was not fully understood, nor the movement of ocean currents. Increased ultra violet radiation resulting from the ozone hole could affect phyto-plankton.

A rise in the average temperature of the planet could alter agricultural patterns, could affect the survival of certain trees and plants and would be likely to increase precipitation and the incidence and severity of storms. Increased uv radiation could affect human health. While plants and animals would in many cases be able to adapt, their ability to do so would depend on the speed and extent of the changes. It was the pace of change in the last 30 years that gave particular cause for concern.

While there were indeed uncertainties, some things were less uncertain than others. That CFC’s, for example, were building up rapidly in the atmosphere and were harmful, was known. Measures to stop the build-up were in hand (though we needed to know more about the effects of the substitutes). What was needed now were national programmes to recover and re-cycle the CFC’s stored in refrigerators, transformers etc. Similarly we could control some carbon dioxide emissions, and were able, in some, inadequate, measure, to control the emission of other harmful chemicals, but we still did not know how to control the emission of methane.

Furthermore, while the case for action on environmental grounds might still be dogged by uncertainties, there were measures which could be recommended on other grounds which would be helpful environmentally. For example, energy conservation was justified on economic and health grounds, and would contribute to a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases. A halt to deforestation and increased afforestation could be justified on grounds other than the capability of forests to absorb and store carbon. In discussing this issue the conference noted that in the developed world the state of the forests was probably stable, and there was considerable scope for extending them as land was released from agriculture. However, temperate forests were less efficient absorbers of carbon and the problem was to reverse the destruction of the tropical forests, with all the economic costs to the countries concerned, faced with rising populations to be accommodated and fed. Development aid and the philosophy of aid-giving needed to be directed towards protecting the environment and should respect traditional farming methods. There was some inconclusive discussion in this context of the relative merits of natural and managed forests. An issue that was raised, but not resolved, was whether tropical forestry would be better served by forbidding the import of tropical timber or by giving an incentive to proper management.

There was some discussion of a “carbon tax”. While some saw this as a means of raising the funds necessary to subsidise environmentally safer programmes in both the developed and developing worlds (e.g. nuclear and solar power as opposed to fossil fuels), while restraining wasteful and destructive practices, others saw such a tax as a means of “internalising” the true economic costs of those practices so that the market would compel their modification or abandonment. Whatever the theoretical arguments, the policy-makers discounted the practicality in the foreseeable future of agreeing such a tax on an international scale and (apart from examples of taxes favouring, for example, unleaded petrol) argued that individual nations would not be willing to accept such a competitive handicap in the absence of international action.

While the difficulties of internationally agreed action were apparent, it was argued that the industrialised nations, responsible for far the greatest proportion of emissions, should act to give an example by practising what they preached. The G7 group might make a start, though many thought that too narrow, even though unilateral action by them would serve to buy time. It was essential to engage the Soviet Union, whose new-found interest in the subject was noted, China and the other large “land-owners”. Moreover the developing countries were more likely to be brought to cooperate if they could be involved in discussions from the start. The general view seemed to be that at least for the present there was no need for new international bodies. Existing bodies such as the UN Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organisation could be strengthened and better coordinated. There was a case for elaborating the legal framework in advance of international agreement on specific measures (though there are obvious difficulties with this).

The crucial importance of the International Panel on Climatic Change, due to report in 18 months’ time, was stressed. The Panel should not confine itself merely to the collation of existing knowledge but should outline strategies and draw up action programmes. In particular the conference trusted that the IPCC would recommend a sustainable level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to be achieved over a period, perhaps of 10 years. It was important, however, not to discredit the effort by pitching recommendations unrealistically high or asking too much, too soon. We still had time, though not a lot. The over-riding need was for more research.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chairman: Sir Hugh Rossi MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative) for Hornsey & Wood Green; Chairman, Select Committee on the Environment


Mr Roger Beetham LVO

Head, Maritime, Aviation & Environment Department, Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Mr Andrew Bennett
Chief Natural Resources Adviser, Overseas Development Administration, (ODA), Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Miss Frances Cairncross
Britain Editor, The Economist
Dr Peter Chester
Director, Environment, Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB)
Dr J C Farman
British Antarctic Survey, Natural Environment Research Council, Cambridge
Dr David J Fisk
Under-Secretary and Deputy Chief Scientist, Department of the Environment
Professor Gordon Goodman
Director, The Beijer Institute, the International Institute for Energy, Resources & the Human Environment, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Dr Michael Grubb
Energy & Environmental Programme, The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Mr John Hobson
Under Secretary, Central Directorate of Environmental Protection, Department of the Environment
Dr Jill Jaeger
Consultant researcher, Beijer Institute
Professor John Knill
Chairman, Natural Environment Research Council; Chairman, Centre for Remote Sensing, Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London; Member: Natural Stone Centre; Nature Conservancy Council; Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (Chairman)
Mr Peter Morgan
Director of Corporate Services, IBM United Kingdom Ltd; member, British Computer Society, Institute of Directors; Board Member, IBM UK Holdings, IBM UK Trust and National Computing Centre; member, Overseas Committee, Confederation of British Industry (CBI); the DTI Focus Committee and Management Committee, Action Resource Centre
Mr Charles Secrett
Campaign Co-ordinator, Friends of the Earth; Board member, Friends of the Earth International
Mr Robbie Stamp
Producer, Television Trust for the Environment International
Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
British Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations
Mr Brian Walker
President, International Institute for Environment and Development, London
Mr Andrew Warren
Director, Association for the Conservation of Energy
Mr Pearce Wright
Science Editor, The Times

Dr David K Dawson

Director General, Canadian Climate Centre of the Atmospheric Environment Service (AES), Environment Canada
Mr Christopher Hampson
Executive Director, Imperial Chemical Industries pic

Mr Stanley Johnson

Adviser on Environmental Protection and Nuclear Safety, Commission of the European Communities

Dr Arnold Hosch
Director, The Alfred Wegener Foundation
Dr Edda Müller
Head of Energy and Environment Department, Ministry of the Environment and Nature Conservation, Bonn

Dr Michael Gwynne

Director, Global Environment Monitoring System, United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi, Kenya; Ecologist

Dean James Barnes

Dean, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University
Dr Frederick M Bernthal
Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans & International Environmental & Scientific Affairs, US Department of State; member, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Mr K E Blower
Head, Group Environmental Services, BP International Ltd, London
Dr Robert Corell
Assistant Director for Geosciences, National Science Foundation (NSF), Washington DC
Mrs Becky Norton Dunlop
Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Department of the Interior, US Government
Mr George S Dunlop
Assistant Secretary, Natural Resources & Environment, US Department of Agriculture
Dr Joseph O Fletcher
Assistant Administrator, US Department of Commerce, Office of Oceanic & Atmospheric Research, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Dr Peter H Gleick
Director, Environment Program, Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, Berkeley, California
Ms Keiki Kehoe
Senior Policy Analyst, Environmental Policy Institute (EPI), Washington; Friends of the Earth-USA
Dr William W Kellogg
Dr Richard A Kerr
Senior Writer, Research News staff of Science
Mr Frank E Loy
President, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, Washington DC
Dr Gordon J MacDonald
Vice President and Chief Scientist, MITRE Corporation; Geophysicist; Senior Advisor to US national security agencies; Researcher in new methods of signal processing and the nature of acid rain and climate change
Professor Sherwood Rowland
Professor of Chemistry, University of California, Irvine (Daniel G Aldrich Jr, Professor of Chemistry); Member, Committee on Opportunities in Applied Environmental Research & Development, US National Academy of Sciences; Member, US National Committee for SCOPE (Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment);Member, Ozone Commission, International Association of Meteorology & Atmospheric Physics
Dr Eugene B Skolnikoff
Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dr David A Wirth
Senior Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council Inc, Washington
Dr George M Woodwell
Ecologist; Founder, Director, The Woods Hole Research Center, Hudson River Foundation; Founding Trustee, World Resources Institute