The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that humanity have lost every policy target set in in Sundsvall, Sweden in 1990. There is no time left for doubts and lies. Unless this generation makes a difference, change will be irreversible.
Between 1979 and 1989, scholars and politicians largely understood the importance of climate change and tried to transform this awareness into action. Those were the years of the bipartisan consensus, which are now unthinkable. At the time, we successfully phased out chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) halting the widening of the hole in the ozone layer, proving that policy coordination can make a difference. Unfortunately, this has been the first and last decisive success in the war to manage global climate change.
Running out of time
The international community aimed to freeze emissions by 20% by 2005. If this had happened, the rise in temperature would have been contained below one and a half degrees. And we might have avoided the spiral of events we are currently witnessing. But we did not succeed.
It has been a challenging journey, hindered – especially at the outset – by a section of the scientific community that frowned upon the relationship between CO2 emissions and rising temperatures; by China and by developing countries that long perceived the climate change challenge as a hindrance to their economic growth; by the large oil companies represented by the Gulf countries lobby, particularly Saudi Arabia and, often, by the US.
Ironically, the IPCC’s supporters have done little to make its work any easier. By evoking climate catastrophe and pushing for dramatic changes to global energy policies, they have provided sceptics with plenty of counterarguments and have caused rifts within the international community, when the priority should have been to identify common efforts geared to defining global energy and agriculture policies and standards.
from 1990 to 2019 global CO2 emissions have risen by around 70%; atmospheric CO2 concentration has registered an almost 20% rise, reaching a staggering 415 ppm – well beyond the critical threshold of 400 ppm and twice the as much compared to the 1900-1990 period
Recently, I was attending a dinner with Corrado Clini and other pioneers in climate change negotiations. They recalled two historical mistakes made by the EU. During the Climate Summit in The Hague in 2000, the EU and the US drifted apart, with Washington withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol; in the countdown to the Copenhagen Conference in 2008, the EU estranged emerging economies (China, India and Brazil), posing politically unrealistic demands that were later exposed as ridiculous following the eruption of the diesel emissions scandal.
The 2015 Paris Agreement seemed to have restored international solidarity on climate change. But it was obvious that Obama’s adhesion without the assent of the US Senate was bound to lead to America’s withdrawal from the agreement, as promptly happened with Trump. In sum, humanity keeps failing to act as one.
Time has run out
30 years after Sundsvall, many things have changed – some for the better, some for the worse.
The IPCC’s work now engages emerging economies. In spite of the Trump Administration’s skepticism or outright denial, US government agencies still document and “certify” the effects of rising temperatures and climate change. China has become the world leader in the development of low-carbon technologies and systems; India has begun to follow suit. And Sino-European cooperation has given rise to a technological decarbonisation platform that could drive the world economy.
Still, from 1990 to 2019 global CO2 emissions have risen by around 70%; atmospheric CO2 concentration has registered an almost 20% rise, reaching a staggering 415 ppm – well beyond the critical threshold of 400 ppm and twice the as much compared to the 1900-1990 period.
There is little doubt that the first step can only be a global carbon tax to improve the competitiveness of renewable energy, giving rise to high-capacity, smart connected grids that can maximize the contribution of renewables in the global energy system
According to data published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), if we do nothing, there will be a 3-4°C global average temperature rise by the end of the century. Notice that the Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene report published by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (US) in August 2018 suggests that a mere 2°C could activate a tipping cascade, altering local climates and triggering more intense extreme events that would jeopardize not only the structural stability of water, agriculture and energy supply systems in many regions of the planet but also the safety of coastal areas, particularly in poor or recently developed areas.
There is a dire need for an energy transition towards decarbonisation and the optimisation of renewables, as well as a review of consumption patterns and a concerted fight to protect forests.
There is little doubt that the first step can only be a global carbon tax to improve the competitiveness of renewable energy, giving rise to high-capacity, smart connected grids that can maximize the contribution of renewables in the global energy system. These measures are all technically viable but require pondered negotiation to reconcile the different needs of the different economies. Instead, we are witnessing frequent and extreme climate events, deforestation of the planet’s lungs, wildfires in the northern hemisphere, soil erosion and ocean acidification.
Make no mistake: no walls will ever be able to defend individual countries form the effects of global climate change.
There is no country too poor to act
I was at a IEA Conference on Energy Efficiency in Dublin in June. Few have the courage to lie anymore. Why? Because the industry is getting scared. They don’t. We have come to a point where we either collaborate or fight for survival. Right now, we are doing very little.
We continue to have a rapidly developing fossil fuel sector. In September 2009, the G20 leaders made a commitment to reform the sector during a meeting held in Pittsburgh, USA. But good intends have not be followed by action. Big banks that fund fossil fuel projects were not signatories to the 2015 Paris agreement. And according to the Banking on climate change report prepared by the Rainforest action network, between 2016 and 2018 33 institutions led by JP Morgan Chase, Well Fargo, and the Bank of America approved funds to the tune of $1.9 trillion for the development of the sector. According to the IMF, if these funds were not allocated, emissions would be reduced by 25%.
In 2018, 70% of global energy consumption stemmed from fossil fuels and only 10% from renewables. But even a 10% reduction in fossil fuel consumption would make a significant difference to the climate. A 30% reduction would reduce emissions by 11-to-18%.
In 2014, investment in renewables exceeded investment in the traditional fossil fuels industry. The tide is changing in countries like India, Indonesia, Zambia and Morocco. In India, subsidies to coal have been cut by 75% to support the wind and photovoltaic industries. Almost everywhere in the world renewables have become competitive and no one doubts that they can replace old technologies. But we need more resolute action.
Subsidies must end. In the words of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in May 2019, “many people believe that subsidies serve to improve living conditions but there is nothing more wrong; instead, we are using citizens’ tax money to increase hurricanes, spread drought, melt glaciers and whiten corals. In a word: to destroy the world.”
Above all, the world should do well to be afraid and raise the level of perceived urgency for action. The question is not between growth and environmental conservation but between controlled and uncontrolled climate change. As the climate begins to change, the poor will be less able to respond, widening the gap between those whom subsidies are meant to protect.
Arvea Marieni is Strategic Advisor and Innovation Consultant, specialising in Sino-European environmental cooperation.