Early Action Needed to Buy Time

Research commissioned by the British Government predicts bad things for rainforests and other living creatures unless action is taken on global warming. If appropriate action is taken, on the other hand, the global community will buy valuable time to adapt to global warming.The report on this research comes just before the International community meets in Bonn to make progress on implementing the legally binding Kyoto protocol on Carbon dioxide emissions.

The need for speedy international action to ratify the Kyoto protocol for cutting greenhouse gas emissions was given fresh impetus with the publication today of new research. Published by the renowned Met Office Hadley Centre, the research by top scientists was commissioned by the DETR (The British Government's Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions). It shows that failure to act now could mean the Amazon rainforest is devastated; large sections of the global community go short of food and water; many heavily populated low-lying coastal areas are flooded and deadly insect-borne diseases such as malaria spread across the world.

Today's (October 18) report comes just a week before the International community meets in Bonn to make progress on implementing the legally binding Kyoto protocol. The protocol is recognised as the first step on the long road to stabilising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It predicts that, by the 2080s, if action is not taken to tackle climate change:

* global temperatures will rise by about 3C
*large parts of northern South America and central southern Africa could lose their tropical forests
* some 3 billion people could suffer increased water stress; Northern Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent will be worst affected
*around 80 million extra people could be flooded each year due to rising sea levels: Southern Asia, South East Asia and island states in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean will be most at risk
*about 290 million extra people could be at risk of malaria - China and central Asia will be most affected
*the risk of hunger in Africa will increase due to reduced cereal yields

However, compared with the predictions above, the report concludes that if carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was stabilised at 550ppm the worst impacts of climate change can be avoided or delayed by up to 100 years. This would provide valuable time for our society and the environment to adapt and: 

* delay a 2C global temperature rise by over 100 years
*avoid significant losses to the Amazon rainforest and delay loss of the carbon sink by 100 years
*cut by 2 billion the number of people experiencing increased water stress by the 2080s
*delay a 50cm sea-level rise by 55 years and reduce by 75 million the number of people experiencing annual flooding from rising sea-levels by the 2080s

Environment Minister Michael Meacher said:

"This work highlights the urgent need for international action to limit levels of greenhouse gas emissions. If we don't act now, many parts of the world will suffer severely within the lifetime of people alive today.

"We have to make Kyoto work - we owe it to our children and their children. So we will be pressing hard to maintain political momentum and make progress at the Fifth Conference of the Parties.

"Even so, Kyoto is a first step. In the long term the world will need to cut emissions substantially to avoid some of the worst effects of climate change."


1. In 1998 the average global temperature was the highest since records began 140 years ago. The 1990s was the warmest decade recorded, at 0.6C higher than at the end of the last century.

2. The UK has played, and continues to play, a leading role in international climate change negotiations. Under the Kyoto Protocol, the EU and 11 other countries (mostly Eastern Europe) agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 8%, based on 1990 levels, over the period 2008-2012. The EU's target was subsequently shared out between Member States - the UK agreed to a 12.5% cut. The UK also has a domestic goal to cut UK carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) by 20% below 1990 levels by 2010. The UK is well on track to meet its (UN Framework) Convention (on Climate Change) target to return emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. In 1997 the UK's greenhouse gas emissions were 7% below 1990 levels and CO2 levels were 8% lower.

3. Recognising the importance of assessing the threat of future climate change and its impacts, the DETR has commissioned a series of linked research projects. The report published today is the third to explore the global impacts of the latest climate predictions from the Hadley Centre models. The previous reports (Climate change and its impacts), in December 1997 and November 1998 (available from the Hadley Centre, address below) described the global impacts of climate change resulting from the 1995 IPCC 'business-as-usual' or 'unmitigated' emissions scenario.

4. In 1997 the IPCC suggested two scenarios of reduced emissions which  lead to stabilisation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 750ppm and 550ppm. The EU propose that stabilisation at 550ppm should guide global limitation and reduction efforts. These levels are approximately twice present-day and twice pre-industrial levels respectively. Today's report is the first assessment of the global impacts of climate change resulting from these stabilising emissions scenarios and is a contribution to the international debate on interpreting 'dangerous' climate change, as required by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

5. The Fifth Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Bonn (25 October to 5 November), will work to maintain political momentum and make technical progress. The latest results of climate predictions will be presented at the meeting. 

6. Climate scenarios for this study have been generated by the second Hadley Centre coupled ocean atmosphere climate model, HadCM2. For each of the three emissions scenarios, predictions of surface temperature, precipitation, sea-level rise and ocean circulation are made. These predictions are then used to make assessments of the global impacts in the following areas: natural vegetation; water resources; world food supply; sea level rise; and human health. Impacts resulting from emissions leading to stabilisation of CO2 in the atmosphere have been compared with those from unmitigated emissions, concentrating on changes between the present day (defined as the period 1961-1990) and 30-year periods centred on the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s.

7. By the 2080s predicted impacts include: increased vulnerability to water stress in northern Africa; severe coastal flooding in southern Asia; and increased risk of malaria in China. It also predicts that, long after CO2 levels are stabilised, sea levels will continue to rise because of melting land ice and thermal expansion of the oceans.

8. The report also gives clear indications that the stabilisation of CO2 at 550ppm not only substantially reduces the magnitude of many changes and impacts over the next century but may even prevent some of the more serious impacts in certain regions. For example, with unmitigated emissions the tropical rainforests of South America are predicted to suffer significant rapid losses after the 2050s. Under stabilisation at 550ppm these losses are substantially reduced, even by the 2230s.

Source: Press Release DETR (The British Government's Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions).

Copies of the report: Dr Geoff Jenkins, The Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, The Meteorological Office, London Road, Bracknell, Berks, RG12 2SY. 

For further information contact  Climate change Dr Geoff Jenkins Natural vegetation Prof Melvin Cannell Water resources Dr Nigel Arnell Food supply Prof Martin Parry Coastal impacts Dr Robert Nicholls Human Health Prof Tony McMichael  

Press Enquiries: 0171 890 4615; out of hours: 0171 890 5925 / 5945
Public Enquiries: 0171 890 3333; E-mail:
Press Releases: available via DETR website

18 October 1999

Forwarded to RIC by: Sam van Rood, Sustainable Cities and Industries Campaign Coordinator
Australian Conservation Foundation 33 George Street, Sydney, 2000, Australia.
(ph) 02-9241-6265, (fax) 02-9247-1206