According to the World Meteorological Organisation, 2010 was officially the warmest year on record, just over half a degree warmer on average than the baseline of 1961-1990. This is based on three separate data sets: the Hadley Centre/UEA one in the UK and the NASA and National Climatic Data Center ones in the USA. The press release tempers this by saying that there was no statistical difference between 1998, 2005 and 2010. Indeed, the average temperature for 2010 was only 0.01C above the figure for 2005 and 0.02 above 1998’s average. These differences are well within the margin of error of plus/minus 0.09.
To be fair to the WMO, their press release is headlined 2010 equals record for world’s warmest year. But reporting was not always quite so measured. The BBC’s Richard Black has this statement at the beginning of his report: “2010 was the warmest year since global temperature records began in 1850 - although margins of uncertainty make it a statistical tie with 1998 and 2005.” Meanwhile, the Guardian and Independent decided to stick with the UK Met Office figures, with stories headlined Met Office: 2010 was second warmest year on record and Last year was second hottest on record, say scientists.
The WMO itself argued that the latest data confirmed the fact of human-driven global warming. In their words:
“ ‘The 2010 data confirm the Earth’s significant long-term warming trend,’ said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. ‘The ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998.’
Over the ten years from 2001 to 2010, global temperatures have averaged 0.46C (0.83F) above the 1961-1990 average, and are the highest ever recorded for a 10-year period since the beginning of instrumental climate records. Recent warming has been especially strong in Africa, parts of Asia, and parts of the Arctic, with many subregions registering temperatures 1.2 to 1.4C (2.2 to 2.5F) above the long-term average.”
But, looked at dispassionately, the evidence of sustained global warming driven by increased levels of carbon dioxide in the air has been pretty sparse for more than a decade (and even before that was merely circumstantial). And of course, as readers of this newsletter and other sources will know, there are considerable uncertainties associated with the collection and averaging of temperature data from across the world.
Official weather stations, of which there are many fewer now than half a century ago, tend to be concentrated in developed countries and data from some is inevitably contaminated by the Urban Heat Island effect. On the other hand, there are vast tracts of ocean and sparsely populated areas, including deserts in both the Tropics and polar regions, where weather stations are few and far between. Attempts have been made to fill in the gaps by projecting or assuming temperatures in parts of the Antarctic from data gathered at the nearest stations, but these have been quite rightly discredited. So data collection is by no means geographically uniform.
The WMO statement about regional warming is particularly interesting given that the generally accepted hypothesis of the enhanced greenhouse effect predicts that warming would be greatest at the Poles and least in the Tropics. The press statement indeed picks out ‘parts of’ the Arctic as having suffered the greatest warming, but says nothing about the Antarctic, which is a pretty sure sign that warming has been modest there at most. The fact that Africa and parts of Asia also feature in the statement fails to fit with the hypothesised picture. But reports of unusually warm weather in any region tell us nothing useful about climatic trends (neither do reports of very cold weather in parts of Europe which the WMO, to its credit, also mentions in the press release).
Meanwhile, things on the climate change policy front continue as normal. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme, which has always seemed ill-designed and ineffective, has also been seen as vulnerable to fraud by some commentators. Trading rights to emit carbon dioxide was intended to put a cap on emissions from individual companies and sites and so reward those who were energy efficient (who could sell their allocated permits) and punish those who did not cut back (who would have to buy more permits). Having an effective system means keeping accurate and reliable records, and one concern has been that shady dealing could be covered up within the complexity of the system.
Now it has been reported on euractiv.com that up to two million permits have gone missing and been sold on the spot market: Great carbon theft may have netted 14m Euros of permits. This is not the first such problem, but it is the biggest so far. It was caused apparently by phishing scams which have gathered passwords necessary to trade the permits. The seriousness of it has prompted the shutdown of the national carbon registries and hence the ETS itself.
In the same item, it was reported that "Trevor Sikorski, director of carbon markets and environmental products research at Barclays Capital, predicted that the closure could cost carbon traders around €70m per week." To put it another way, a scheme which seems both ineffective and vulnerable to serious fraud is providing profits to traders of €3.5bn a year. All of this, ultimately, is a cost paid by consumers and taxpayers.
If we must spend such sums (plus the other additional costs of the ETS) and we must use it for something which will help to reduce carbon intensity, the quest for affordable, reliable renewable energy seems a much better bet.