LONG READ: Avoiding a Historic Cop Out

Ahead of the start of the Cop 26 summit, Professor Gareth Wyn Jones analyses the risks and challenges faced by humanity.

In the next two months, as the COP 26 Conference in Glasgow looms, we will be inundated, scared and, possibly, even bored by a barrage of information about the threats facing humanity from climate change and global warming.

It’s a fair bet that after the conference, some, especially perhaps the hosts in the person of UK’s booster-in-chief Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, will hail the outcome as an outstanding success; others will surely issue dire warnings that the outcome is inadequate and another step on the road to disaster. 

Undoubtedly, the world’s governments will make promises; some more credible than others. The trend towards more low carbon, renewable energy and electrification will continue, augmented possibly by newer forms of nuclear energy. Pressures from the EU and US will ensure an important but non-binding agreement on committing to greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions, perhaps drastically, but all will be voluntary. It is difficult to imagine the UK, with its obsession with unfettered sovereignty, promoting an international authority with teeth to enforce any agreement, still less that Brazil, Australia, India or indeed China and the USA would agree to such a constraint. 

Despite the Paris Climate Accord of 2016 and any foreseeable outcome of Glasgow 2021, the seemingly inexorable rise in atmospheric levels of CO2 and the other major greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, will persist unabated for a number of years. Such is the nature of the growing global, energy-dependent economy.

The rise was dented by the global economic stall caused by the Covid 19 pandemic with an estimated annual fall in industrial CO2 emissions of ~6.4% [-2.4 Mt] and a loss of ~4.5%  [$4 trillion] in global GDP. But the Keeling curve of atmospheric CO2 levels continued its remorseless growth of about 2.5 ppm CO2 each year. Past the worst of Covid, 2021 promises a bumper year for industrial CO2 emissions; it’s catch up time and so no respite for the Keeling curve! Any agreements reached in Glasgow will take a number of years to show up in the atmospheric data. A critical question is how many.

Syniadau uchelgeisiol, awdurdodol a mentrus.
Ymunwch â ni i gyfrannu at wneud Cymru gwell.

Likely the Glasgow conference will highlight technical fixes, on growing investments in renewables (wind, solar, hydro, etc.), on rolling out EVs, maybe on H2 and fuel cells, and certainly on running down coal use. The richer countries will be pressed to actually make good the $100 billion per year of finance promised to the poorer states in Paris, since, if not entirely forgotten, unfulfilled.

In truth, the rate and depth in emissions cuts required to avoid a 1.5°C rise, as recommended in Paris, are unlikely to be realised any time soon.

It’s worth remembering that global energy demand continues to grow, driven by political and economic imperatives, the extravagance of the rich, continuing population growth and the reality of the billions still living in real, often abject, food, water and fuel poverty. 

‘Although vital in the medium term, tree planting does not provide humanity or large corporations with a get-out-of-jail-free card in the next decade.

Despite the laudable growth in renewable, low carbon energy, it is not keeping pace with this rising demand. If one includes nuclear in the equation, the proportion of low-emissions energy is no higher now than in the mid-1990s. In reality, the renewable energy has been straining to keep up with the decline in nuclear electricity with scarcely a dent in fossil fuel use.

Given these realities much will be made in Glasgow of the slippery concepts of net zero carbon, of off-setting emissions by tree planting, of carbon capture and geo-engineering such as seeding some oceans with iron or reflective umbrellas in space.

All such schemes have drawbacks; some are very expensive, others open to exploitation and fraud, still others highly risky and unproven with the potential to have disastrous, unforeseen consequences such as changing at global atmospheric circulation patterns – know unknowns!  Also afforestation comes with a significant time lag; any new trees must become established before the forests and their soils start to become carbon sinks. Although vital in the medium term, tree planting does not provide humanity or large corporations with a get-out-of-jail-free card in the next decade. Yet, as the 2021 IPCC report makes clear, major cuts in net emissions within this decade are vital to meeting any target in the range +1.5 to 2°C. 

Gofod i drafod, dadlau, ac ymchwilio.
Cefnogwch brif felin drafod annibynnol Cymru.

 

Since we have already reached about 1.1°C mean warming above pre-1900 levels, avoiding 1.5°C is a Herculean task but such averages obscure as much as they reveal. The warming over land [already >1.4°C] is greater than over the oceans [~0.8°C] (although the latter absorb over 90% of the additional irradiance), is more marked nearer the poles than elsewhere and is greater in winter than in summer. So local terrestrial warming, for example on Svalbard, already significantly exceeds the much touted 1.5°C mean. 

‘Climate change is a unique historical phenomenon. For the first time ever, all humanity is really in the same leaky boat.

These changes are, of course, not taking place in a social vacuum. Their impacts are felt at the local human level. We live and work in specific locations, some at greater risk than others. Our prosperity is enmeshed in the world’s human and physical geography. But this is all changing with frightening speed. Already millions live in death traps when daily temperatures regularly exceed 40°C and high humidities prevail.

The recent fires, heat and droughts in Australia, Greece, Turkey, Siberia and the Pacific North West and California are destroying livelihoods as well as habitats, as have the appalling floods in western Germany, Belgium and China. How will many of our great cities, built on estuaries and river flood plains, manage the threat of flooding?

What will be the fate of the Andean cities whose water supplies depend on retreating glaciers or the intensive agriculture and horticulture of the Central and Imperial Valleys of California as the droughts worsen and the reservoirs on the Colorado River or those fed by the Sierras, continue to empty.

The concept of a global mean target may well be valuable in diplomacy and climate modelling but is less helpful in everyday life. Climate change is a unique historical phenomenon. For the first time ever, all humanity is really in the same leaky boat.

The Glasgow COP 26 Accord, and critically what we actually do thereafter, will affect all lives from Tuvalu to Tulsa, from Murmansk to Maseru. What China, India and the USA decide will affect our local climates and sea levels in New York, Kings Lynn, and Lagos and in Ganges/Brahmaputra delta in hundreds of year hence. It is a global reality being played out locally, and in a world already experiencing acute crises of poverty, human migration and conflict.  

It is not easy to grasp the scale of problems posed by human greenhouse gas emissions and to relate the global targets to our everyday lives. Since the main gas, carbon dioxide, that we have been adding to the atmosphere since the fossil fuel burning began in earnest, accumulates for centuries, the IPCC has calculated how much extra CO2 equates, with a margin of uncertainty, to a given rise in average global atmospheric temperature.

Using 2020 as a baseline, our atmosphere can accept only some 400 billion more tonnes [Bt] of CO2 while retaining a reasonable [67%; 2to1 on] chance of avoiding the mean 1.5°C rise (500 Bt for 50/50 chance). Currently we are emitting a little over 40Bt of CO2 a year, to which we must add another 10 Bt of CO2 equivalents [CO2e] for the effects of the other GHG gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. If business-as-usual prevails or, more realistically, we allow for a modest increase in emissions until 2027 [only 5 more years] and considering only CO2, we will be left with a remaining ‘budget’ or ‘ration’ of perhaps only 120Bt CO2 for 8 billion people to be spread over many decades, and including the food chain (currently accounting for ~ 17Bt CO2e per year), to meet the 1.5°C target! That is, we will have we exhausted about two thirds of our ‘1.5oC ration’, effectively for all time and be well on the way to a 2oC rise.

The equivalent IPCC figure for humanity to retain a 67% change avoiding a 2°C rise is 1150Bt. This gives a little more time to curb emissions but at the expense of admitting the probability of significantly greater climate disruption at a global and local level.

This scenario risks our passing tipping points such as the loss of Amazonia as a carbon sink or major and uncheckable methane and CO2 emissions from the tundra or the destabilization of polar ice fields. It should be borne in mind that these budgets could be 220Bt per year higher or lower depending on the emission’s trajectories of methane, nitrous oxide and other GHG; their rise shows no sign of diminishing. Thus continuing global annual CO2 emissions of 40 to 45Bt to 2030 (only 8 more years) might leave a residual budget of perhaps between 300 and 600Bt for the by-then >8 billion humans. This is still a very challenging target, short of massive global carbon capture schemes. 

These vast numbers need a more human and personal context.

If the current total global emissions of ~50Bt of GHG per year [~40Bt as CO2] were to be distributed evenly amongst the world’s 8 billion people, it equates to a little over 6 tonnes per person per year. But of course it is not distributed evenly! In the US, Australia and several other countries the national average is near or above 20t per head.

In the UK our ‘consumption’ emissions are about 10 tonnes per head (the UK production value is lower as the UK has deindustrialized and imports many goods, including food, embodying ‘carbon’). These numbers ignore historic emissions over the last 150 years (predominantly from the ‘Industrialized West’) even though they are still retained in our current atmosphere. 

We may be all in this together but the poor of the world, although numerous, have made and make only a very modest contribution to the issue (e.g. Rwanda per capita emissions 0.5t GHG per year; India ~2.5t). To halve global emissions by 2027 equates to an improbably drastic global mean of ~3 tonnes per head to meet a near 1.5°C target while still only leaving a very modest budget for the future. It helps to realise [i] a single return flight London to New York emits ~1.2t, [ii] some 10,000 miles in the average petrol car emits ~2t, [iii] household gas use for central heating in UK is ~ 3t and [iv] an annual 7% cut in global emissions would take 10 years to halve emissions and 20 years to reduce CO2 emission from 40 to 10 Bt. 

Recalling the relative small annual impact of the Covid lock-down, it must be questioned whether required depth and speed of changes is compatible with our affluent expectations – our houses heated by fossil fuels in winter and cooled by air-conditioning in summer, with regular runs in our SUVs to the supermarket, with our throw-way, food-wasting society, certainly with weekend breaks in New York or Dubai or, perish the thought, with sports event in which thousands fly great distances to support their teams!

‘Both globally and in any one country, individual emissions are closely related to personal wealth. Consequently the onus on achieving meaningful short-term cuts must lie, disproportionally, on the shoulders of the rich and better-off. 

Undoubtedly, major technological breakthroughs and investment from government and corporations are required to secure any degree of the low carbon affluence. 

We must develop vast new sources of low carbon electricity to, for example, move transport away from fossil fuels and accommodate the burgeoning demands of the web and information processing (some suggest these will use >20% of global electricity by 2030). One crucial factor will be the development of relatively cheap storage of electricity as our renewable low carbon electricity sources are intermittent.

Given the scale, especially the time scale, and pervasiveness of the issues and our continuing dependence on fossil fuels (still providing >80% of global energy use), technological fixes and their implementation globally will not solve these problems in the next 5 to10 years nor avoid a mean rise of more than 1.5°C.

Yet such technologies are absolutely vital to avoid a catastrophic mean rise of over 2 to 3°C, which would entail local rises of 5 to 8°C, the destabilization of the great Ice Caps, huge sea level rises and other disasters. Worryingly, the new IPCC report includes a low probability, high impact scenario of a 1.5 to 2 meter rise in mean sea level by 2100. 

Gofod i drafod, dadlau, ac ymchwilio.
Cefnogwch brif felin drafod annibynnol Cymru.

 

In the short to medium term, whilst the new low carbon technologies are being developed and rolled out, the only possible, albeit itself challenging, solution lies in cutting our personal emissions.

Governments will use carrots and sticks to promote action but they will be highly sensitive to and constrained by our social and political reactions. So successful mitigation and adaptation will depend heavily on us, on millions of individual decisions and local responses. It will require us to see ourselves as part of the great inter-dependant family of humanity and yet to be active in our own communities! 

However, both globally and in any one country, individual emissions are closely related to personal wealth. Consequently the onus on achieving meaningful short-term cuts must lie, disproportionally, on the shoulders of the rich and better-off. 

‘Developing, consolidating and rolling out new technologies will take many years.

Herein lies a fundamental dilemma. Our economy is based on continuous consumption, on innovation, on churning and on creating and meeting new needs. Greta Thunberg may be wearing second hand clothes but our High Streets and Malls and factories and services, and the employment they create, depend on continuing consumption. While many have benefitted, the elites – the 1% – have grown very, very rich and powerful on the back of this system. Will they accept this truth and be prepared to respond?

To give the dilemma a gloss; are old Etonians, hedge fund managers and the elites of Silicon Valley, Shanghai, Jeddah, Delhi and Luanda prepared to drastically change their high emissions life styles and to pay much more taxes to help the poorer citizens of the globe, be the latter in the Gorbals of Glasgow, the shanties of the Cape Flats or the favelas of Rio and themselves to carry much of the cost of the decarbonization of the global economy? 

Some, especially those wedded to free-market solutions, will claim that technological innovations will save us. They will emphasise the development of new low carbon energy sources such as small modular nuclear reactors [SMPs], of carbon capture and geo-engineering to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels and maybe artificial meat to curb emissions from ruminants. The advocates of this approach will resist higher taxes on the rich, arguing it is these entrepreneurs who will fund the innovations, in the steps of Elon Musk. They will envisage the current consumption-based global economy continuing essentially unchanged but with different energy sources and, likely, some forms of atmospheric carbon capture.

Others, while accepting the need for new technologies, will argue that, without a major revolution in our economic priorities and theories and our social lives, we are condemned to disaster. They will claim that exponential material economic growth, however energized, is incompatible with living on a singular planet Earth and with the emission’s reduction targets. 

‘Unfortunately, the reactions to the Covid pandemic bode ill, showing, yet again, that short-term personal and political advantage trump all.

A fundamental challenge for both viewpoints is time. Developing, consolidating and rolling out new technologies will take many years. For example the Netherlands will ban NEW fossil-fuel cars from 2025, the UK from 2035, the same date as when all NEW Volkswagens will be EVs. Officially the UK aims to be a zero net carbon state by 2050. These are important initiatives but globally are far too slow. As we have seen, by 2030-35, never mind 2050, planet Earth will be well on the way to an over a 2oC mean rise. 

Fundamentally re-envisaging the global financial system with its current emphasis on the laissez faire, and on exponential GDP growth will be fiercely resisted.  The need to sustain employment and the promise of ever-greater material affluence will remain at the forefront of the minds of the politicians and policymakers and the public. This and the power of carbon-intensive elites will make it problematical to adopt the required policies such as carbon taxes, aviation and other fuel taxes, or simply reducing the speed limit on all roads to 60mph; 100km/h. But worse, the long shadow of Trump, the deniers and white supremacists may limit the USA’s ambitions and, after the Biden’s presidency, may again challenge any concept of global equity. Some will continue to see white lives and affluence as more important than the fates of Indians, Chinese or Africans. Conversely many of the latter will feel, with good reason, that the ‘WASP West’ has already used its share of GHG emissions. They feel they are entitled to virtually all the remaining emissions to fuel their economic growth and a greater measure of prosperity.  

Unfortunately, the reactions to the Covid pandemic bode ill, showing, yet again, that short-term personal and political advantage trump all.

In the UK the pandemic exposed a lack of forward planning, a high degree of ‘inoculation nationalism’, an elite unwilling to obey their own laws but all too happy to mislead and lie and profit from disaster capitalism. Not good omens!

Much more positively, the crisis also highlighted the amazing capacity of international science and efficiency of transnational up-scaling and production.

Finally, Covid also dramatized the conflicts between keeping the consumer economy rolling, public safety and controlling the government budget. These factors will loom large in the current battle on how to combat climate change. 

Syniadau uchelgeisiol, awdurdodol a mentrus.
Ymunwch â ni i gyfrannu at wneud Cymru gwell.

I fear that international cooperation to combat climate change may fracture on two fundamental questions; firstly, that of equity and, secondly, the hold certain brands of capitalism and national exceptionalism, be it American, Chinese, Indian or European, have on global economic power.

‘The concept of humankind having a common purpose, one that transcends nations, religions, economic and political philosophies, is crucial if humanity is to avoid disaster but is fragile and easily undermined by the thoughtless or the unscrupulous.

Both turn on how and by whom the remaining “greenhouse gas” budget will be utilized and who will foot the bill for decarbonizing and ‘de-methaning’ our futures.  An egregious example is the global food chain which permits obesity, horrendous waste and dire hunger and accounts for over 30% of GHG emissions. It must consequently be part of any progress towards net zero. It includes methane, a highly effective but short-lived GHG, about half from ruminants, as well as the long-lived CO2 [mainly from land disturbance and ploughing] and nitrous oxide [a by-product of nitrogen fertilization].

While lab-cultured meat may attract the middle classes in Europe and be sold as ‘methane-free’, over a billion live in the arid, semi-arid and mountainous parts of our world dependant on their methane-producing ruminants for, often limited, livelihoods. And cattle are sacred to the Hindu. How will these livelihoods and religious priorities be weighed against the god-given right of northern Europeans to fly for ‘holydays’ in the Sun?

‘Avoiding catastrophic climate change will require unprecedented global cooperation and understanding, major social changes as well as massive investment. 

Similar ethical issues arise in a number of spheres. China [population ~1.4billion] is now the major emitter but near the global mean on a per head basis. It exports embedded carbon in goods to the UK {66million] who claims to be virtuous having deindustrialised with low GHG ‘production’ emissions. But historically, unlike China, the UK has been a major emitter and burner of coal, the most polluting fossil fuel? Will this conundrum descend into name-calling? The concept of humankind having a common purpose, one that transcends nations, religions, economic and political philosophies, is crucial if humanity is to avoid disaster but is fragile and easily undermined by the thoughtless or the unscrupulous.

To summarise: Covid has shown us that the scale and speed of emissions cuts to give a fighting chance of avoiding a 1.50C rise are improbable, verging on the impossible, in a free society.

Even the 2 degree target is a huge ask; partly due to technical issues but more due to our socio-political and economic expectations. Avoiding catastrophic climate change will require unprecedented global cooperation and understanding, major social changes as well as massive investment.  The changes will necessarily impact upon and require the cooperation of the rich and better-off (nations and individuals) as the main emitters. To avoid a panicky authoritarian response and the growth in surveillance and regulation to enforce draconian cuts in few years, the public must be persuaded of what is at stake and be honestly led.

‘Climate change is but one of a series of challenges facing humanity.

COP 26 in Glasgow will give us indication whether our leaders will stop prevaricating and show they are up to this historic task. A clear marker will be how funding is approached. Will substantial graded carbon taxes, and/or a Tobin tax on currency conversions be agreed? Even better, will taxes explicitly targeting the vast sums horded by the super-rich in tax havens -likely to be over $20 trillion- be agreed?

This latter approach has the great merit of making the major polluters pay, reducing gross inequity and the scams and corruption that surround these tax havens. These havens have allowed the elites and criminals from many countries to hide their assets and avoid any national or indeed global scrutiny or responsibility and to siphon-off wealth from the poorer countries to the benefit of corrupt rulers and the global rich.

There are other equally profound issues. Climate change is but one of a series of challenges facing humanity. Some are environmental such as biodiversity loss, nitrogen loading, atmospheric and hydrological pollution, plastic in our oceans and waterways, growing water shortages, soil erosion and degradation etc.

Others are social and economic, such as the growth in gross inequality combined with little or no improvement in the living standards of many working people in the developed world, grinding poverty, the threats to jobs from automation, robotics and artificial intelligence and the pervasive mental and emotion stress seemingly part of our hyper-competitive, social media-dominated world. 

These problems, the culmination of the vast changes over the past two centuries, while being the fruits of human ingenuity, are the products of the industrial revolution; itself driven by ample cheap fossil fuel energy.

‘Humans could rethink and use the challenge of climate change to avoid even greater catastrophes in the future. The glamour of space travel and of setting up colonies on Mars or elsewhere is a distraction from the more profound problem of humans finding ways to live within the resources of our planet in relative harmony.

Coal, oil and gas have empowered human activity on a scale and speed unprecedented in planetary history and built on previous energy step-changes including the agricultural revolutions. These powers have led to societies more socially and materially complex than ever previously experienced. This complexity has required increasingly sophisticated, intrusive and sometimes-resented regulatory regimes. Such controls, be they customary or legal, are a far cry from the ways of our ancestors for millennia. In such a context, global warming and climate change are harbingers of many other changes and, possibly, of a systemic global collapse as envisaged originally by the Club of Rome in 1972

From this perspective, the urgent challenges of climate change offer humankind a unique opportunity. There are no simple damage-free, technological solutions and every low carbon energy generation or storage or carbon capture scheme, while essential, has its downsides, be it lithium, cobalt, uranium, copper or rare earth mining or massive afforestation reducing land available for other uses including food production, or bird kill or habitat loss or landscape intrusion. Maybe the only way forward is to learn to live on much less energy and with greater equity, with reduced complexity and more cooperation, and with as small population growth as possible. It is rarely emphasized that the larger the human population, the smaller the individual carbon and GHG and other resource budgets must be.  

Humans could rethink and use the challenge of climate change to avoid even greater catastrophes in the future. The glamour of space travel and of setting up colonies on Mars or elsewhere is a distraction from the more profound problem of humans finding ways to live within the resources of our planet in relative harmony.

Perhaps the best indicator of a will for this to be done, starting in Glasgow next November, will be for the UK government not to make grand declarations on their commitment to be global leaders in reducing emissions (although they surely will unless COP 26 disintegrates as did Copenhagen in 2009) but take a real lead and decide to shut down all the tax havens under Her Majesty’s jurisdiction.


All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Prof. Gareth Wyn Jones is Professor Emeritus at Bangor University.

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