Political leaders match must words with action to get back on track with pathway targets for zero carbon in 2050. This is part of a series of articles reflecting on what happened at COP27 in 2022, to be followed by pieces on the major challenges that remain in tackling climate breakdown and what governments and individuals can still do to help prevent it.
The first in this series is available here.
1.5C – an “irrelevant” target?
World leaders who spoke at the COP27 conference in Egypt in Nov 2022, including Rishi Sunak, clung to the narrative that we can still limit the average increase in surface temperature of the planet to 1.5C by 2050. This seems increasingly unlikely, given a record of past government inaction and the developing scientific picture.
The leaders’ prevaricating words, which avoided commitments to major policy changes, did nothing to address the global heating we are now predicted to experience, not by 2050, but in the next five to ten years. Bill McGuire, professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards at UCL and the author of Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitant’s Guide, explains it succinctly in his recent article in the Guardian:
“In 2015, at COP 21 in Paris governments agreed to pursue efforts to limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5C. To say that progress made since has proceeded at a snail’s pace would be an insult to molluscs.
“Instead we are in a position to to achieve this, emissions would need to fall 45% in the next seven and a bit years – when they are actually on track to rise by 10%, compared with 2010 levels. Seven years ago, the 1.5C target seemed a sensible one. Now, it is at best, irrelevant, and at worst, dangerous. It has to go.”
A mistake to abandon 1.5C
Using artificial intelligence to predict warming timelines, researchers at Stanford University and Colorado State University found that 1.5C of warming over industrial levels will probably be crossed in the next decade.
The merits of abandoning the 1.5C target are however disputed. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, warns, “They are making a mistake. Proponents of the existing energy systems will be the beneficiaries if the obituary of 1.5C is written”. Nigel Topping, high level champion for business action at COP26 held in the UK maintains, “I think you can argue quite strongly that the whole world could get to net zero in the early 2040s, and in many sectors in the late 2030s”.
Alok Sharma, the UK’s president of the COP26 summit in 2021 that focused on the 1.5C limit, recalled in his closing speech at COP27: “The pulse of 1.5 degrees was weak. Unfortunately, it remains on life support. And all of us need to look ourselves in the mirror, and consider if we have fully risen to that challenge over the past two weeks”.
Those for retaining or for abandoning the 1.5C target are agreed that a significant reduction in carbon emissions is still needed to keep global temperature rise as close as possible to 1.5C. What is in dispute is the feasibility of making the necessary reductions by 2030.
We have ignored or denied climate change for 200 years
One of the earliest observations of global warming was made by John Ruskin between 1830 and 1870. He noticed that a glacier in Chamonix was disappearing at an alarming rate. From the late 1880s until the 1920s scientists put forward compelling evidence and quantitative analysis, using language that we would all recognise, to describe the greenhouse effect, the role of greenhouse gases, and in particular the impact of CO2 on global average temperatures.
The world has resisted this knowledge for 200 years. In Professor Robin Perutz’s 2021 IdeasYork talk ‘Those who foresaw climate change but the world did not listen’, he sets out this remarkable background to the current crisis.
The advanced economies – responsibility and (lack of) leadership
Not surprisingly, particular responsibility falls on the shoulders of the ‘advanced’ economies. Renowned scientists have been telling us for years that the current resource-consuming, carbon-emitting, environmentally destructive lifestyle of the world’s affluent populations is indefensible if our planet is to remain habitable for human occupation. But few leaders in these countries have been willing to take a hard dose of reality and act on it.
Here, in a nutshell, is the failure of leadership: affluent populations cannot expect to slide painlessly from our present climate damaging lifestyles to a sustainable alternative in the time we have available to prevent irreversible climate breakdown – but no leader wants to be the one to tell them. The longer we delay the required response, the more juddering and traumatic the transition will have to be. It seems ridiculous to say it, but first we need to be wholeheartedly committed to avoiding our own destruction.
It often seems that individual citizens have acquiesced in the political inertia or lapsed into a feeling of personal powerlessness in the face of the challenge, even though millions of us do care. How else can we explain the mollusc-like progress we are making in total reductions in carbon emissions as we contribute to the tipping point of runaway climate conditions that will result in wiping ourselves out?
The mortal risk of short-term thinking
For too long the response by politicians to climate change has been based on inappropriate, short-term principles of economic value. They will deny it but for a long time their actions have amounted to ‘We’ll agree to save the planet for future generations as long as it’s cost effective to do so’. They make preventing global suicide conditional upon sound economic sense, as with other policy decisions we face to keep us ‘secure’.
That means the costs have to be justified in their own right and in competition with all the other underfunded crisis conditions we face. If the motivation for policy and funding priorities is to be this kind of ‘business as usual’ mindset, it amounts, at best, to a vague hope that science will come up with something to make the climate problem go away. At worst to a cynical denial by politicians of the reality of climate change. Either way, such an approach plays fast and loose with the natural habitat on which billions of human lives hang.
COP27 – good and bad
Responses of environmental scientists, agencies and campaigners on the achievement of the recent COP27 climate conference fall into two broad camps:
Thumbs up: A landmark has been reached in the loss and damage debate started in 1991 in the interest of the poorer, least carbon-emitting countries, many of whom also happen to be in geographic regions already seriously threatened by the consequences of climate change. The industrially developed countries that have historically benefited economically from treating the environment as a massive CO2 waste dump have agreed ‘in principle’ to provide funds to ameliorate the damaging effects upon the poorest countries of their free loading practices.
Clarity on what constitutes loss or damage from climate change is missing. It remains to be seen if amounts pledged now or in future are forthcoming or adequate. Signs to date are not encouraging.
Thumbs down: No progress has been made; in fact, things have gone backwards in terms of making firm commitments to reducing carbon emissions in line with a sustainable pathway by a specific date.
The COP27 report text at page 3 Sect III Energy pt 10 now includes in a get-out-of-jail clause that tolerates ‘low emission and renewable energy’, widely thought to keep the door open for gas consumption, when the aspiration had been to double down on reducing all carbon-emitting energy sources following the COP26 declaration of the ambition to eliminate coal altogether as an energy source.
The collapsing cliff
The human race is frequently depicted as hurtling towards the cliff edge over which we will tumble to our doom unless we take evasive action immediately.
After the cop out of COP27 the image should be refined. Richer nations are standing with their backs turned to the cliff edge as it collapses ever more quickly towards them, while a group of poor nations is standing much closer to the edge, rattling a collection tin in the hope we will toss a few coins into it to help them take defensive action before the cliff completely collapses beneath them.
But in the end, we are all on the same cliff. And we in the wealthier nations are in line for the next stage of collapse unless we all, rich and poor, confront the challenge and act with a degree of collective urgency that is still so glaringly absent from our leaders’ responses.
This begs three questions: Where do we stand after COP27 in our efforts to restrict average global surface temperature rise to 1.5C? What can concerned individuals still do to help achieve net zero sooner rather than later and get as close as possible to the 1.5C target? And has COP outlived its usefulness as the mechanism for achieving the global commitment to a safe upper limit to the global temperature rise? The following articles in this series examine those questions.
The next in this series of articles on tackling the climate emergency is available here.