The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Special Report on 1.5C (SR15) delivered a stark message last week: governments have till 2030 to slash CO2 emissions to avoid a 1.5C rise in average global temperatures. Failure to do so would almost certainly push us towards catastrophic climate change. To add to the challenge, the world has already warmed by over 1C above pre-industrial era temperatures.
However, skeptics – several of whom hold high political offices – were quick to argue that because the models used to link economic activity to a changing climate did not claim to be 100% accurate, they could not be trusted at all. They also pointed out that there were multiple gaps in the historical and modern-day data sets used in report’s analyses, which casts a degree of uncertainty over its dire climate predictions.
To be fair, yes there are gaps in the data sets, and there is a certain degree of uncertainty over the predictions. But this is also where the SR15 has been – perhaps intentionally – misunderstood. The gaps exist because our understanding of Earth’s climate system has not yet evolved to the point where we can dissect this incredibly complex mechanism down to every single contributing factor. It was also not evident even a century ago that detailed records of the planet’s CO2 concentrations and man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would eventually become critical to predicting the fate of human civilization.
Yet, the science behind the SR15 has, equally, never been so emphatic. Unrestricted dumping of CO2 and Methane and other GHGs into the atmosphere will destabilize the planet’s climate system – as thousands of published papers in the best peer-reviewed journals have repeatedly warned. The uncertainty is not over if it will happen, but the severity of the impacts it will unleash. In fact an objective assessment of the frequency of extreme weather events the world has faced since 2015 should drive home the point that climate scientists’ warnings were not hyperbolic.
Sadly though, reviewing the progress on global climate action since the passing of the Paris Agreement offers – at best – a mixed bag.
Germany has regressed from being a pioneer in bringing more renewable energy online (in the 1990s and 2000s) to a country where today even suggestions of an exit from coal-fired power are instantly shot down. It’s not surprising then that it is going to fall short of its 2020 climate commitments.
Across the Atlantic, Canada continues to pursue the highly carbon-intensive process of extracting oil from its tar sands. The Trudeau government also recently spent $4.5bn rescuing the dubious Kinder Morgan oil pipeline. In both instances the government has asserted that it cannot abandon either the money to be made from shipping the oil abroad, or the employment generation opportunities the projects afford.
The theory of immediate climate action stifling economic opportunities has also been used by Australia. Not only has it axed its National Energy Guarantee – under which it would curtail its carbon emissions – but its current administration has also renewed its support for coal after the SR15 was released. The reasoning is the same – coal mining and coal-fired power are intricately linked with the country’s economic fortunes and its job prospects, and therefore their role must be protected. Conservative politicians have even threatened to pull Australia out of the Paris Agreement in their dogged defense of the fuel.
Moreover, the Trump administration continues to undermine Obama-era regulations designed to reduce USA’s billions of tons of GHG emissions. The new NAFTA deal completely fails to mention climate change or global warming, and instead may even allow American oil and gas firms to simply disregard any regulations intended to keep the industry’s emissions in check. Even the country’s attempt at mainstreaming electric vehicles is being attacked by misleading articles on their usefulness and reliability – despite evidence to the contrary.
Therefore as we head into the UNFCCC’s 24th Conference of Parties in Poland in December, very little is expected of the usual suspects. It’s unfortunate that their delegates – who are expected to be visionaries working for the advancement of their nations – will most likely be fighting over the nuances of the Paris Agreement’s text, rather than committing to any concrete climate action.
However, despite the somber global sentiment, there have been positive developments – particularly from developing nations. The Pacific island countries of Fiji and Solomon Islands – facing complete submergence of their territories to rising ocean levels – have announced they will switch to 100% renewable energy by 2030 and 2050 respectively.
Of course it may be easy to remark that with their economic output and energy consumption, they can afford to stop relying on fossil fuels. But the scorching pace of sustained economic growth (@ around 7-8% per annum) registered by both India and China clearly demonstrates that economic growth and rising GHG emissions are not invariably interlinked. Both the nations today lead the world in transitioning to solar and wind energy, while China alone accounts for nearly half of global electric vehicle sales.
Also, despite being at least two or three decades away from relying fully on clean energy, the governments of both countries have openly supported clean energy sources by easing access to low-cost finance, inviting multi-national cooperation in project development and amending state laws to guarantee positive returns for clean energy developers.
It’s important to remember that neither country has declared a final date for quitting coal. Reports even suggest that China is augmenting its coal-power capacity – albeit with more efficient units. Nevertheless, it is their political will to start acting now – instead of bickering over the high cost of climate action – that offers hope.
India has also upgraded its renewable energy target to 227GW by 2022 (from 175GW), and is looking to exceed its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) of sourcing 40% of its energy from non-fossil fuels by 2030. Its policy of reverse auctions for renewables has enabled such rapid deflation in their tariffs that they have matched and even overthrown coal-fired power as India’s cheapest form of energy in less than a decade. And defying critics yet again, renewables are creating many more jobs than fossil fuels – not just in India but around the world.
The Indian prime minister recently even announced his vision of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) becoming the OPEC of the future, and how it could help several African, Asian and even developed nations leapfrog to emissions-free energy. This decisive pivot has also encouraged multi-lateral financiers like the World Bank and insurance giants such as Lloyd’s and Nippon Life to scale back their assistance to fossil fuels.
All of this therefore re-affirms the fact that the political will to take the right steps does work wonders, and in fact boosts economic growth. Yet despite the evidence, climate policies by the developed world are nowhere close to what they should be.
Consequently it’s the countries that have historically contributed the least to climate change that are now leading on mitigation efforts. But since we’re left with the shortest of windows to act, willful disregard for the SR15’s recommendations is very likely to leave us all with unbearable consequences.