LORD Byron once described the English winter ‘ending in July to recommence in August’ – which is more or less what happened this year. It was a disappointing cool summer in the United Kingdom. Elsewhere, however, the weather of 2021 looked disconcertingly like hell.
A devastating heat wave struck North America’s Pacific coast, breaking temperature records and sparking hundreds of wildfires. Heat-stressed trees shed their leaves and an estimated billion marine animals died.
On 11th July, the US government’s National Weather Service recorded a temperature of 54.3°C at Furnace Creek in Death Valley, which is the hottest formally recognised daytime temperature ever.
Meanwhile extraordinary storms ravaged parts of Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, turning entire towns into rivers and shredding the countryside.
A week later, hundreds of thousands of people in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou had to be evacuated after a year’s worth of rain fell in three days.
The likelihood and intensity of such events is multiplied by climate change. On 19th July, as glaciers collapsed and thawing Siberian permafrost released methane into the atmosphere, the amount of sea-ice cover in the Arctic plummeted to the lowest summer level ever recorded. In August, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first part of its report into The Physical Science Basis of Climate Change, more than 40% of the Greenland ice cap had meltwater on it.
The IPCC report summarised our future – in a nutshell – as ‘species extinction, more widespread disease, unlivable heat, ecosystem collapse and cities menaced by rising seas’ unless we limit global warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial temperatures, and this dire warning served to focus attention on the Cop26 conference that Britain is hosting in Glasgow in November.
Cop26 is shorthand for the 26th meeting of the ‘conference of the parties’ to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty that was adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Five years later the Kyoto Protocol set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet emissions are still set to rise 16% by 2030 compared with 2010. In order to have a 75% chance of staying within the 1.5ºC target by the end of the century, we need to emit no more than 400 billion tonnes of CO2 in total, with the calculation starting from 2020.
At present around 35 billion tonnes are emitted each year. To avert disaster, in other words, emissions need to peak by 2025 and then drop rapidly to at least net zero by 2050.
Translating international treaties into gigatonnes of carbon dioxide is not an exact science. Of course we need constructive dialogue between politicians but actions speak louder than words, as Greta Thunberg recently observed. We’ve now had 30 years of ‘blah blah blah’ at UN conferences – and where has that got us?
The world’s developed countries failed to meet a commitment at Cop21 in Paris in 2015 to provide developing countries with at least $100 billion in annual climate finance by 2020. The same Paris treaty also requires countries to come up with new climate pledges, or ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs) within five years, but only 113 countries out of the 191 signatories have actually done so, and big emitters including China, Japan and South Korea simply ignored the deadline. Some countries like Brazil and Mexico set new emissions goals that were actually higher than their old targets. This reflects a more serious problem, which is that the NDCs submitted in 2015 were not nearly ambitious enough.
The International Energy Agency warned in October that the plan to cut global carbon emissions is likely to fall 60% short of the 2050 net-zero target with current pledges.
The grim truth is that, in spite of advances in renewable energy, the world’s dependence on fossil fuels has scarcely changed as a proportion of total energy use. In fact, since the covid-19 pandemic began, G7 nations have spent more money supporting the fossil fuel industry than supporting renewable energy, and the current gas crisis may yet derail our climate goals. Earlier this year, the G20 failed to reach an agreement to phase out coal.
Transitioning to renewables is going to cost trillions of pounds. It will probably deal a fatal blow to whole industries. Yet we are told we can save the planet and grow the economy at the same time.
In other words, new economic thinking is needed, including a transition to sustainable degrowth. Because one of the challenges of the climate emergency is that it will demand sacrifices from everybody in order to avert catastrophe. In the long run we will have to eat less meat and use more public transport. Unfortunately it isn’t clear that we even have a long run.
But we can still turn things around if world leaders at Cop26 take immediate drastic action to end our dependency on fossil fuels and move to 100% renewable energy. Failure to do so will amount to a betrayal of present and future generations.
Photo by Matt Palmer