At the minute the United Nations conference on climate change is finishing up in Paris. It is being referred to as COP21 as it is the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Probably the most famous conference was the Kyoto summit in 1997 which resulted in the Kyoto Protocol, a legally-binding deal that now appears on our AS specification. The protocol was based on the premise that both global warming exists and man-made carbon dioxide emissions have caused it. As well as carbon dioxide they focused on the following greenhouse gases; methane, nitrous oxide and sulphur hexafluoride and also two groups of gases, the hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons.
So where are we now, nearly 20 years later ? The protocol itself did not come into force until 2005 with the aim that industrialised countries would reduce their collective emissions of greenhouse gases by 5.2% compared to 1990. Of course the most important footnote is that the US did not sign up and it seems that now the Kyoto protocol is considered a failure as although certain countries met their targets any benefits were wiped out as large industrial nations such as the US and China continued to pollute unabated.
Now, being a scientist encourages a pragmatic approach with clear presentation of all the data. But I can’t help but feel the politicians’ hearts are not in it when reading about the European Union Emissions Trading System. The name explains the system where energy companies become regulated and allowances set. They can trade their allowances which provides them with an incentive to reduce their emissions. The system seems to have modest gains as they gave very generous initial caps and developed an offsetting process if the companies invested in technologies in the developing world.
However, is this the right approach? Surely the focus should be driving new green technologies or older technologies such as nuclear and the part they play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions? At the minute green chemistry seems like a ‘strand’ of chemistry, a topic on an examination specification, and not an integral part of both pupils and the general public’s scientific understanding. Unfortunately, the COP21 roadshow will move on and the world leaders’ focus will turn away from environmental concerns. But what can we do ? There are many levels we can work at from daily tasks such as recycling or being energy efficient to encouraging our pupils to consider STEM pathways. We need to continue to focus our efforts on getting them to consider careers in science, using their ability and skills to design and engineer solutions instead of avoiding the issues and leaving the problem to the next generation.