Special Report: Can We Halt Climate Change In Our Lifetime?

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We are on the cusp of making or breaking our planet for future generations. Our experts told us the world can be saved but we need radical, inspired action.

Forget the invention of mobile phones, electric cars or even the internet; our generation will be defined by how we managed the climate change crisis.

Global warming is the single, “biggest emergency that we have ever faced as a human race”, Nick Nuttall, spokesman for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) tells Salt.

Our planet is creaking under the weight of seven billion people, expected to rise to over nine billion by 2050. In our ever more profligate pursuit of luxury living, we are wearing down our natural resources, increasing pollution in the atmosphere, the oceans and river systems and, for the most part, it is the poorer, developing regions that are paying the price for the west’s modern age.

Nuttall says: “If we carry on the way we are going, we basically won’t have the level of natural resources we need to maintain life on the planet for that number of people. We won’t have the kind of conditions that make development and growth of livelihood possible because we will have more extreme weather events.”

Reports of climate change began to surface around 30 years ago with varying levels of traction but a mounting pile of sobering scientific evidence – along with visible damage in developing countries – have made it impossible to ignore the ramifications of a planet under siege from carbon emissions.

Nuttall says: “I think the scientific case is better understood today; we understand what the consequences will be if we play Russian roulette for too much longer. The economics of climate change have also been coming through in the last 10 years and with increasing precision on the economic costs of climate change, not just for poor countries but for major economies as well.”

Today’s global consensus is that we must take serious and considerable action to halt what could be the biggest disaster of our times. In under five months, 194 countries will meet at the United Nations’ Climate Change Convention in Paris for what could be this century’s most important global meeting.

At the event in November and December, international stakeholders are set to agree, through a binding commitment, that 2°C is the highest acceptable limit of global warming on earth. There will also be discussions about the provision of compensation for climate change damage to developing countries.

Ahead of the convention, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had some success in June in convincing G7 countries to commit to the phasing out of all fossil fuels by 2100, even convincing the previously recalcitrant Canada and Japan.

Multiple buy-in

According to Shaun Chamberlin, managing director of the Fleming Policy Centre, “most countries have accepted there is a problem but ultimately it’s a challenge to the economic system of the world. If we reduce carbon, it will mean reducing economies and that’s why we haven’t found a solution even though everyone knows there’s a problem. No one has really put forward a viable economical and sustainable solution yet. Politicians are short-termist,” he laments.

Chris Shaw, knowledge research fellow at Oxford University’s Climate Change Centre, agrees that climate change is fundamentally an economic and diplomatic issue as rising carbon emissions are directly correlated to rising production and economic growth: “I don’t believe anything can be done on a global level unless you imagine all nations agreeing to adopt a strategy of shrinking their economies as a possibility – a ‘planned’ economic recession.”

Chamberlin adds that it may be easier to grow climate change support and action from a grassroots and national level.

“At a national and individual level, it’s feasible to reduce emissions but we don’t yet appear to have a solution for meeting a global consensus. If governments are asked to take the economic bite now compared to the environmental bite in the future, they kick it down the road.”

Charlie Wilson, lecturer in energy and climate change at the University of East Anglia and researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, says that because climate change is a long-term problem, it can be complex to get buy-in at a global political level.

“This issue won’t be solved only at a government level, it requires multiple buy-in – from cities, countries, businesses and the public. If you look at emissions, it’s depressing because they are going up but if you look at how the climate change processes are mapped down into city level and country level then there are more glimmers of hope. Those glimmers of hope need to be enormously scaled up and replicated throughout the planet though.”

A report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) warns that countries’ CO2 pledges – known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – which have been submitted in advance of the Paris convention, still fall way short. If implemented in their current form, they will lead to average temperature rises of about 2.6°C by 2100 and 3.5°C after 2200. The IEA report also underlined the need for more ambition and a mechanism to encourage countries to ratchet up their targets after 2020.

It takes two

Experts are divided on the 2°C limit with some unsure whether the figure is even relevant, let alone achievable but most are agreed that the limit provides a focal point for the international community.

Wilson tells Salt that he doubts whether the 2°C limit can be achieved but stresses that it’s not a “binary” issue. “Just because I don’t think we will succeed doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying because ultimately, it’s not about the 2°C limit. The limit itself is fairly arbitrary, it’s not a ‘pass or fail’, it’s a sliding scale where the lower we can keep the mean temperature rise the better.”

Wilson, like many experts, agrees that the 2°C limit has a “galvanising” quality to it and provides a clear goal for different countries to aim for.

“I think it’s very important to try and keep aiming for that target. I remain optimistic that human ingenuity and intelligence can be marshalled behind a deep and enduring low carbon transition.”

Jim Skea, energy strategy fellow and professor of sustainable energy at Imperial College London, agrees with Wilson: “I don’t know if we will meet 2°C but we will get greenhouse gas emissions off the ‘business as usual’ path. It’s a useful number – 2°C is OK as it does motivate people into action.”

However, Skea, who is a lead author of the Working Group III contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, warned that the intergovernmental community will have to ramp up its commitment in the coming years.

“If you take the commitment that people have made so far, including the EU and China, then it is an improvement but to get to 2°C you will have to up that commitment. We will get to 3°C if there is no radical change,” the expert warns.

“They will review the commitments every five years. Those set in Paris are not carved in stone. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to get to a given level of change at a reasonable cost.”

For some experts, there is very little optimism left for the climate change debate. Chamberlin urged a need for realism in public discussion.

“At some point we have to be honest. If we carry on talking about 2°C as an achievable target we are in denial. The implications of climate change are horrific and people are hiding behind this figure. On the one hand, there is political realism – the rate of change needed is too vast to be politically feasible.

“On the other hand, you have scientific realism; between them, you have a huge risk. How do you reconcile these? The critical time for climate change mitigation has been the last 10 years. The next two years are our last chance. Despite commitments, nothing has really reduced emissions.”

How do we get there?

Most experts agree that the effective management of global warming will come from a suite of solutions including the removal of fossil fuel production, dramatic action on reducing energy demands, energy efficiency, bio-fuel production and, more controversially, carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Much of the 2°C target is predicated on CCS technology. Policymakers are counting on ingenious advancements in technology, which will allow companies and governments to remove carbon from the air and place it in the ground, thereby neutralising it. But there’s one problem: the technology doesn’t exist yet.

Wilson says CCS has created a ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’ that governments can use in the second half of the 21st century to offset all the emissions from the first half. He said: “Most of these scenarios are depicted from 2050 onwards to 2080-90. It’s just such a long time away with technology that doesn’t exist yet and who can say with any certainty what the world will be like in 70 years’ time? You can’t definitely say for sure that it won’t happen so therefore the scenario can be interpreted as if it might happen.”

However, Wilson remains positive about the limitless potential of human ingenuity.

“As a human race, we can recognise that climate change represents something of an existential threat to all of us, even those of us in wealthy countries; we are all very much in it together. On the back of that, slowly at first and picking up speed, there’ll be a humanity-wide response which will be technological – carbon capture and storage, renewables and so on – but also the realisation that energy is not an infinite commodity.”

What does the future hold?

Climate change is a cumulative issue. The warming of the planet today can be traced back to decades ago and, to some extent, the damage has already been done. Today’s priority must be to manage the issue and mitigate the problem.

Wilson says: “Some damage has already been done but an awful lot more will be done unless we do something about it. We mustn’t give up. We have to slow down this train.”

Dr Kenisha Garnett, research fellow at Cranfield University’s Institute for Environment, Health, Risk and Futures, believes that careful monitoring and reaction planning will be part of the solution. Her research unit works closely with government partners to stress test food and environmental policy as a result of climate change and consider the UK’s ability to react.

“There will need to be advanced mitigations and this need will drive technological advancements. In the future, there will be a bigger social debate on what is sustainable and how we make things smarter, slicker and better. Our expectations will change over time. People are becoming much better informed about how they can do their bit.”

Garnett says that it may take hundreds of years to reverse climate damage but it’s a gradual process.

“It’s already happening but now we can slow it. The approach has to be mitigation and adaptation. We want to reduce the aggravation of the consequences. How does that look in practice? It’s the responsibility of industry, business and society. We must be prepared to make changes so that we don’t jeopardise the future of generations. We need to be more aware.”

Global impact

Even with a global temperature rise of just 1-2°C, there will be considerable effects, including the bleaching of coral reefs and a drastic decline in the global fishing industry; reduction in food production and consequent mass migration northwards; intensification of weather extremes rendering normal social functioning impossible as one extreme event quickly follows another; and the intensification of military violence and oppression as the rich elite seek to protect their privileges.

The effect on the developing world is one of the most egregious consequences of climate change. The world’s poorest countries, those who depend on their land for survival, are already suffering the effects of carbon emissions from the developed world.

As Shaw says: “Marginal and vulnerable peoples will be most severely affected. Agricultural industries will feel this first, being most closely tied to the weather and climate. The biggest obstacle to a solution is the elite’s attitude to risk. I think most political and corporate leaders have been schooled in the idea of risk as good, as something successful people welcome and use as a spur to greater achievements.

“They are taught not to fear risk and to accept failure as part of the road to the top. This informs thinking about climate change – we can deal with anything – but unfortunately, as we saw with the financial crisis, what actually lies at the heart of this attitude to risk is the power to displace the cost of failure on to other sectors of society. The world’s poor and most vulnerable will bear the brunt of the cost.”

The science

Virginia Burkett, who is the chief scientist for climate and land-use change at the US Geological Survey and is among the Nobel Prize-winning authors of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, paints a mixed picture of what we can expect in the coming years. Crucially, she says it’s not just a matter of “what could be”. The impacts of climate change have already been observed on all continents and across the oceans.

The scientist says the extent of impact depends on the place and the system in question. The most destructive effects are quite different in Vietnam and Alaska, for example. In the Arctic region, rapidly rising temperatures are causing the decline of sea ice and permafrost which is resulting in high rates of coastal erosion and in the abandonment of homelands for many native communities.

In south-east Asia, the effects of sea level rise combined with changes in runoff (due to increasing temperature and changes in rainfall patterns) could have devastating impacts on communities along the Lower Mekong and its delta.

Generally, the increase in temperature is greater at higher, northern latitudes. Alaska is experiencing rates of warming over the past 60 years that are more than twice the global average. Alaska’s average winter temperature has increased by approximately 3°C over the past 60 years. Permafrost is thawing and sea ice is retreating at an accelerated rate due to the rise.

Burkett also notes that sea level rise is accelerating. Large segments of the Arctic coast are collapsing and some communities in coastal Alaska and Canada are facing relocation.

She says: “Accelerated sea level rise is considered one of the most destructive, most costly and most certain consequences of rising global temperature. The impacts are most serious in low-lying coastal regions, particularly in areas that are already rapidly eroding or subsiding. About 65 per cent of the world’s major cities, with a population above five million, are located in coastal regions. These regions comprise a large percentage of the national population and GDP in many parts of the world.”

However, one bright spot that Burkett has observed in recent years is a growing emphasis on adaptation. She said: “Adaptation simply refers to actions taken to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change or to increase any potential benefits. Coastal adaptation has progressed more significantly in developed countries than in developing countries.”

However, the scientist explains that coastal systems and heavily populated deltas are considered hotspots of societal vulnerability to sea level rise.

Recent reports indicate that Asia exhibits the greatest exposure in terms of population and assets. Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, India and Indonesia are the top five nations classified by population in coastal low-lying areas. These countries and many small island nations are expected to face significant impacts and associated annual damage, and adaptation costs of several percentage points of GDP.

Many developing countries and island nations within the tropics that are dependent on coastal tourism will be affected not only by future sea level rise and climatic extremes, but also by impacts to coral reefs.

Burkett explains: “Corals are affected by the combination of higher ocean temperature and rising ocean acidity, both of which are driven by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. The loss of coral reefs could alter the sustainability of many small island nations.

“Coral cover and calcification have decreased in recent decades but it is difficult to attribute the proportion of losses that are climate-related versus the results of other human-related drivers. The primary climate-related driver appears to be ocean warming rather than ocean acidification. Just a 1-2°C increase in summer ocean temperature can lead to coral bleaching. We expect that coral bleaching and mortality will increase in frequency and magnitude over the coming decades.”

Seeking solutions

From an international community viewpoint, the upcoming UN Climate Change Convention will be crucial to forging a lasting diplomatic agreement on global warming. Most experts say that the climate change agenda needs to be embraced from the ground-up and by multiple parties in order to succeed.

Chamberlin urges: “We need to get on with it outside the United Nations. As change agents we can put a great deal more pressure on our politicians. It’s no longer about our children, it’s about us. We need be speaking with a much clearer voice. This is an issue that we care about. We need a collective framework. This is the defining challenge of our generation and we need to act on it. It’s not insoluble but it requires changes at an economic, social and political level. It doesn’t have to be depressing – there are a lot of things that we can do.”

UNFCCC’s Nuttall adds that it’s not just about “hard technology”, we will need our forests and our oceans and our soils as well.

“The fact is we need every single hand on deck, we need every single smart government policy, smart investment and smart technology to move in the right direction and create a far better world for the next generation than the one we’re living in. We need to restore the balance of planet earth back to where it was before the industrial revolution. Not by going back to the dark ages but by getting smarter about the way we use technology and the way we invest in people and the planet.”

In the next 15 years, US$90 trillion is likely to be invested in infrastructure: in power stations and roads and cities. If only a fraction of that is put into clean energy and sustainable transport, it will drive increasing levels of investment into clean tech and a high-tech world.

We are at a historic and critical crossroads. If we accept that massive change is coming, we need radical and revolutionary changes. What’s required now is swift and confident multi-party action. We need to take a leap of faith.

As Schuyler Brown writes in his column for ‘The Huffington Post’:For each individual the climate crisis presents an opportunity for self-awareness and personal growth, for decisive and moral action and acts of courage. It presents something so rare in our modern, insulated lives: the opportunity to transcend. For all of us collectively, we have the chance to move in a coordinated fashion into the unknown, relying not on some promised outcome but on each other. This would not be simply about personal growth but a collective, evolutionary leap forward. This is the fight of our lives… because it is, in fact, the fight for our lives. All of us.”

What must be done on a global level to keep climate warming to an acceptable level?

  • Rapid and dramatic improvements in energy efficiency
  • Absolute reductions in energy demand in developed countries
  • Rapid phase out in the use of unabated coal
  • Regulated and incentivised transition to electrification of transportation systems
  • Widespread cultural change and sensitisation to climate change as a planetary threat and as a transformative opportunity to improve quality of life

 

What can you do?

  • It’s important that we keep talking about climate change and ensure it doesn’t become a topic that people tire of. The more it’s talked about, the more people in a position of regulatory or business authority will see it as an issue that isn’t going away and will recognise that there’s a large groundswell of opinion in favour of change.
  • We can take transformative action like limiting the number of flights we take, switching to remote working or becoming vegetarians. If these things are scaled up to the level of millions in the UK, it would make a difference.
  • Activism is not the answer in itself but policymakers can be constrained by what they see as the will of the electorate so the more urgent and stringent action we take, the better. A good example is the university fossil fuel divestment campaign; it remains potent and symbolic action and it keeps climate change in the conversation. Check org for a climate change demonstration near you.
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