Why the 2020s must be a decade of ambitious climate action
In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report on global warming which concluded that the world must halve its carbon emissions by 2030 or give up any hope of keeping temperature rise to below 1.5oC.
To have any chance of achieving this goal, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak in 2020 and “decline dramatically thereafter”.
The report concludes with sobering frankness that meeting this target will require “far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.
As we enter the final decade in which there is time left to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown, this blog seeks to address the most pressing question of our time:
can we do it?
The immeasurable cost of inaction
The stakes could not be higher. As the IPCC special report notes, holding warming to about 1.5oC means “the difference between a world we can adapt to and one threatening life planet-wide”.
Failure to reduce global heating is expected to result in what climate author David Wallace-Wells, in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, calls ‘Cascades of Chaos’; mass-extinctions, sea level rise, coral bleaching, super-charged storms, wildfires, droughts, famine, etc…
This is why a target of 1.5C maximum heating was enshrined in the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, in which countries around the world pledged action on climate change.
The big question is: Are people really willing to accept and embrace “unprecedented changes” to their daily lives?
Are the Del-Boys and Rodneys of the world ready for plant-based diets, electric cars, hemp shirts and domestic holidays? The fact that global greenhouse emissions are expected to reach record levels for 2019 suggest probably not.
To make matters worse, countries such as Russia, China and India are predicted to increase their carbon output as their growing economies and improving standards of living bring a greater demand for travel, housing, meat and dairy and consumer goods.
The cost conundrum - can we afford to act, can we afford not to?
To keep global temperature increase within a safe limit will require wholesale change.
The IPCC report describes a need for “deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options”.
Adequately meeting the cost of the climate challenge will be high no doubt, but it is vital to consider that in many instances the changes required will lead to an increase in economic prosperity and living conditions, especially when considering the current investment in the fossil fuel economy.
For example, a far-reaching programme of energy efficiency upgrades would not only create warmer and healthier homes for millions of people, it would alleviate demand on the NHS as fewer people would fall ill over the colder months. Such a scheme would also reduce energy bills and keep more money flowing in the local economy, as well as creating many thousands of new jobs for installers, which would in turn boost tax revenue.
Given that since 2015, banks have invested $1.9 trillion in fossil fuels, it is not unreasonable to expect this investment to switch to developing a low carbon economy. A far-reaching economic undertaking of this kind is not without precedent.
In 1933, during the height of the Great Depression in the USA, President Franklin D Roosevelt initiated his landmark “New Deal”, which sought to resuscitate the ailing economy with an extensive programme of infrastructure projects.
The experiment was a success, and has led many societies around the world to call for a “Green New Deal”; an ambitious programme of infrastructure upgrades that will deliver the foundations needed for the transition to a net-zero carbon economy.
Granted the investment required of such an endeavour will be high, yielding benefits that will far outweigh the costs.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that benefits from a long-term energy transition would yield cost savings of $6 trillion annually by 2050 just from reduced air pollution, better health, and reduced environmental damage.
How are different countries delivering on targets around the world?
Global progress towards meeting climate targets is a mixed bag as you might expect.
There has been great progress in clean energy growth – renewable capacity has doubled in the last ten years, mostly from solar PV and onshore wind.
Some countries, such as Iceland, Paraguay and Costa Rica, have already achieved 100% renewable energy generation. Other countries like Norway, Austria, Brazil and Denmark are close. There are also regional successes, like Samso island,Quebec, British Columbia and New Zealand’s south island.
The UK is good in some areas and bad in others. It is a global leader in offshore wind-power, but falls down in many other areas, including onshore wind, where, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, electricity generation is cheapest.
Other nations, such as the USA, Australia, Russia, China, and India, continue to pursue an energy policy rooted in fossil fuels like coal and gas. In many cases, these countries are financing the development of new coal and gas power plants abroad in addition to their own domestic programs.
Furthermore, some countries are pressing ahead with policies that actively destroy ecosystems which remove carbon from the atmosphere. Of particular note are the record breaking levels of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.
Measuring progress - are we doing enough?
According to Climate Tracker, an ‘optimistic’ assessment concludes that current action will only limit global warming to 2.8°C, close to twice the maximum temperature increase agreed in Paris and a level considered catastrophic for human and animal life on Earth.
Greenhouse gas emissions still continue to increase globally. Preliminary estimates for 2019 indicate that CO2 emissions reached a new historic high (Global Carbon Project, 2019).
Although the UK is only responsible for 1% of global carbon emissions, we still have a vital role to play in leading the charge to a Net Zero economy. In fact as a leading global economic powerhouse, the UK has the ability to be a beacon for the rest of the world.
If the 4th largest economy in the world cannot demonstrate progress in carbon emissions reductions, what hope can we expect from others?
The UK has demonstrated such leadership by becoming the first major economy to declare a state of climate emergency and legislate for Net Zero by the year 2050. However, there has been little political follow up to realise these lofty ambitions. In addition, at the present rate, 2050 is too late.
Since June 2018, the UK Government has delivered only 1 of 25 critical policies identified by the Committee on Climate Change as required to get emissions reductions on target.
What can you do about the climate crisis?
If the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change and halve global greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade, then change needs to happen at the community level.
Time and time again, governments around the world have talked big on climate action but not delivered on their promises.
It is therefore essential for regular people to demonstrate an appetite for positive change, both by taking action in our daily lives and by making sure that we have the right leaders in place to steer a safe course to climate safety.
According to the science, we have a ten-year window in which to reshape our world.
We can continue the path of business as usual which will devastate our natural environment and cause a collapse of eco-systems not experienced for millennia.
Or we can accept our role to switch our mindset and knuckle down to the humbling task of building a more equitable and sustainable society which operates in equilibrium with nature.
This is our defining moment and we owe it to future generations of all species to act boldly and responsibly.
There are a thousand ways that we can all make changes to support the drive to sustainable planet. Here are just a few of the most powerful and easily achievable changes we can all make.