11 January 1991 - 13 January 1991

Global Climate Change and its Implications

Chair: Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO

The conference met some two years after a previous Ditchley conference on climate change, at which a predominant theme had been uncertainty: about both the implications of scientific research for the climate of the planet and about measures which could or should be adopted at national and international level to mitigate predicted adverse effects of climate change. In January 1991, by contrast, it was agreed that the nature and scale of the problem were becoming clearer.

Research, and the analysis of its results, had moved on apace: although there was still a spectrum of opinion among scientists, the character of the debate within the scientific community was very similar in the US, Europe, Japan and, significantly, in China. There was now a consensus of opinion, as highlighted in the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), about the contribution to global warming to be expected as a result of the continuing emission of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide from fossil fuel consumption. The report predicted rates of mean global warming ranging from 0.3°C to 0.1°C per decade according to whether emissions were assumed to conform to “business as usual” or assumed to be reduced dramatically. The day before the conference met, the British Meteorological Office had stated for the first time in its own report its belief that evidence of global warming had become reasonably clear. Important uncertainties did still exist, however, and attention was drawn to several areas in which further research was required:

  • the question of regional climatic changes, which might occur as a result of global warming of even 1°C, e.g. a significant change in the monsoon pattern in the Indian sub-continent;
  • oceanography, including, for example, the implications of the possible disruption of the El Nino system and of the effects on sea levels of climate change in the polar regions;
  • the importance of bio-diversity: attention was drawn to the current lack of knowledge about the carbon cycle and how some 40 per cent of each year’s man-made emissions of carbon is taken out of the atmosphere;
  • the hydrological cycle, with its importance for agriculture.

The working group which considered the state of scientific research and future needs pointed to two serious obstacles: the shortage of skilled researchers, especially in some of the fields listed above, and the fact that as much as a tenfold increase in expenditure on greenhouse research might be needed. This was not special pleading but reflected the real needs.

It was noted that in parallel with a greater consensus about global warming, the awareness of the problem at government level, particularly in the industrial world, had also increased (though there was still a need to educate public opinion) and that there were signs of growing political will to take action and of some consensus on the direction of policies required. The Montreal Protocol on CFCs had been a considerable achievement, in which a positive attitude on the part of industry had played an important part and pointed the way to the possibility of reaching international agreement on measures to control anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, which, it was agreed, was the first priority. In setting targets, the EC had taken the lead so far. The US remained cautious, since the role of emission targets was controversial there and, in the words of one participant, high energy consumption was almost a national religion. It was also noted, on the other hand, that 70 to 80 per cent of research on the problem had been conducted in the US, where work on such new technologies as solar, thermal and wind power was being pushed forward. It was argued that there was a strong constituency in the US for a different policy on global warming, that the public were concerned and - with the important exception of higher gasoline taxes - prepared to pay (and in some states were already doing so) and that there were good prospects of the emergence of a stronger national energy policy at Federal level.

There was a strong consensus that the promotion of energy conservation and energy efficient measures was a first priority in attempting to mitigate the effects of global warming and that significant improvements could be achieved at relatively low cost with existing technology. The example of motor vehicles, a major source of greenhouse gases and facilitators, was adduced and reference made to a recent US Department of Energy report that a 30 per cent improvement in the fuel efficiency of cars could be achieved with existing technology. Even such simple measures as siting houses to take advantage of the sun could help.

In terms of power generation, nuclear power, despite its problems, would continue to have a role to play. Alternative energy sources such as solar, wave and wind power would be increasingly exploited but were unlikely to be able to make up for reduction of fossil fuel energy, though it was agreed that hydro-electric generation was not sufficiently discussed and was a good source of clean energy when correctly sited. Much more research was needed before the feasibility of ambitious larger-scale and hugely expensive proposals for mitigating global warming, such as the global sun-shade, could, or should, be considered.

In parallel with the need to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, much emphasis was placed on the crucial role played by the land biomass, in particular the tropical rain forests, in absorbing carbon dioxide. It was agreed that measures to halt deforestation and promote re-forestation, particularly in non-industrial countries, were essential. In general, the need for the non-industrial world to become more involved in the problem was a recurring theme throughout the conference. The IPCC’s studies had shown that the greatest impact of global warming was likely to be on non-industrial countries, especially those with large populations exposed to damage from rising sea-levels. Such findings were reflected in some national studies: a report published by the People’s Republic of China had predicted that 100 million of its people could be affected in coastal areas, that four out of six major timber species could be devastated as a result of climate changes and that water resources could be severely damaged, leading to a 5 per cent overall loss in agricultural production. Unless such countries could be persuaded - and helped - to take appropriate measures, all the efforts made by OECD countries to mitigate global warming would come to nought. (Within 15 to 20 years, non-industrial countries could be contributing half of all greenhouse gases and bearing the brunt of the impact of global warming, while much less able to cope with the effects than the industrial countries.) This was not an easy task. Non-industrial countries - and some regretted that they were not represented at the conference - tended to blame the West for the existence of the problem and aspired to reach similar standards of living for themselves through similar methods of industrialisation, in the case of China by exploiting their massive reserves of coal with all that that implied in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. It was vital that they should be helped to facilitate the process of economic development in more energy efficient ways:

  • by helping them to understand the risks and appealing to their national interests in order to encourage them to come to appropriate arrangements;
  • in particular, by helping them to develop the scientific base in their own countries so that their own scientists could study the problem, as was already happening in China and in India. Transfer of technology would fail in the absence of the cultural background to enable its use;
  • by indicating how they could leap-frog technologies which had proved to be environmentally undesirable in order to use those most helpful to them, such as solar energy;
  • by demonstrating how natural resources, such as tropical forests, could be exploited economically in less damaging ways.

In all this, non-governmental organisations and the private sector, including international corporations, could make important contributions.

If the industrial countries showed good faith, through well-targeted assistance, the non-industrial countries would be prepared to co-operate. Most governments were already aware of the implications for their countries of global warming, though public opinion was as yet not sufficiently alive to the issues, especially where very survival was a daily battle.

Participants were agreed that a demonstration of political will on the part of the industrial nations to stabilise emissions of greenhouse gases over a 10-year period would serve as an important example and incentive to the non-industrial. While measures actually to reverse the dangerous trends were too severe to be contemplated, many measures which would slow them down were justifiable in their own right. It was hoped that an international Convention on climate could be agreed at the World Conference on Environment and Development to be held in Brazil in the summer of 1992. This Convention would at least provide a framework into which subsequent work could be fitted on the precedent of the Vienna Convention of 1985 on CFCs and the subsequent Montreal Protocol. It would be vital to bring along all major countries of the world, notably Brazil, China, India and the USSR. Although some participants were not sanguine about how much could be achieved by 1992, they were reminded at the end of the conference how much had been achieved since 1989.

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

Chairman: Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
Warden, Green College, University of Oxford


Professor André Berger
Department of Physics, Faculty of Sciences, Georges Lemaitre Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics, Catholic University of Louvain

Professor George Allen
Retired economist and agricultural economist working in universities, business and international consultancy (1948-90); Emeritus Fellow, St Edmund Hall, Oxford;
Dr Mary Archer
Lector in Chemistry, Trinity College, and Fellow and College Lecturer in Chemistry, Newnham College, Cambridge (1976-86); Trustee and Chairman, National Energy Foundation

Mr Anthony R Brenton
Head, Environment, Science and Energy Department (previously Head, United Nations Department), Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Dr Keith A Browning FRS
Director of Research, Meteorological Office, Bracknell

Miss Frances Cairncross
Environment Editor, The Economist

Mr Nigel Haigh
Director, Institute for European Environmental Policy, London

Mr David S Mace
Lawyer; General Manager, Health, Safety & Environmental Services, British Petroleum International, London

Mr John Maddox
Writer and broadcaster; Editor, Nature

Professor Norman Myers
Consultant in Environment and Development, including to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Government of the Federal Republic of Germany, NATO, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Defence Staff College and Secretary-General, 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development

Professor Ghillean Prance
Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

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

Mr David Smith
Director for the Environment, PA Consulting Group, Royston

Professor William Stewart FRS FRSE
Chief Scientific Adviser, Cabinet Office; Boyd Baxter Professor of Biology, University of Dundee

Mr Andrew Warren
Director, Association for the Conservation of Energy, London

Professor Tom M L Wigley
Director, Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia

Mr Christopher Hampson
Director, Imperial Chemical Industries PLC, responsible for the Pacific and Far East Region (excluding Australia), Advanced Materials and Safety, Health and Environmental matters

Professor Mark W Zacher
Professor of Political Science and Director, Institute of International Relations, University of British Columbia; author

Herr Raimund Bleischwitz
Project Officer, Institute for European Environmental Policy, Bonn

Mrs Martina Etzbach
Scientific Assistant, Study Commission for preventative measures to protect the earth’s atmosphere, German Bundestag

Dr Edda Müller
Head of Energy and Environment Department, Ministry of the Environment and Nature Conservation, Bonn

Dr Hiroya Ichikawa
Director of Industry and Telecommunications Department, Keidanren, Tokyo

Dr Shuzo Nishioka
Director, Center for Global Environmental Research, National Institute for Environmental Studies, Japan

M Pier Vellinga
Project Manager, responsible for coordinating policy on climate change, Directorate General for the Environment, The Hague

Dr Pieter Winsemius
Director, McKinsey & Company (Management Consultants)

Dr Scott A Hajost
Senior Attorney, Environmental Defense Fund

Dr David G Hawkins
Natural Resources Defense Council, Washington: Senior Attorney

Dr Patricia M Irving
Associate Director, National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (Senior Ecologist 1986-88), Council for Environmental Quality

Mr Joseph Jaworski
Head of Planning, Shell International Petroleum Company, London

Professor Judith T Kildow
Associate Professor of Ocean Policy, Department of Ocean Engineering, MIT

Mr George M Newcombe
Head, Environmental Practice Group, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Lawyers, New York

The Hon William A Nitze
President, Alliance to Save Energy, Washington DC

Mr Justin T Rogers Jr
President and Chief Executive, Ohio Edison Company and Chairman of Board, Pennsylvania Power Company

Professor Eugene Skolnikoff
Professor of Political Science, Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Mr John C Topping Jr
President, Climate Institute, Washington DC; author; editor of report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change