On the heels of extreme weather, from Siberia to China, from Canada to California, from Germany to Greece comes the most alarming report yet from the IPCC. It's Friday, the 13th of August 2021. What an auspicious date!
If you follow the Sustainable Futures Report, by now you will have worked your way through all the masses of press coverage
about the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s the first part of the Sixth Assessment: The Physical Science Basis. You may not yet have read all 3,000 pages of the document, (spoiler alert – neither have I - although I have read the Summary for Policymakers), but the message is clear. It's a message not just from thousands of scientists but from nearly 200 world governments.
Peer-reviewed and government vetted
This Sixth Assessment (AR6) is unique among documents in that it is not only peer-reviewed by thousands of scientists but it is also scrutinised by 195 governments who examine the wording and the conclusions drawn in minute detail and can demand revisions before the report is finally released. In the past there has been criticism that the conclusions of previous reports have been watered down and weakened by sceptical governments, no doubt driven by vested interests opposed to change. The fact that this Sixth Assessment Report is published with alarming conclusions demonstrates that governments are finally taking the science seriously.
You’ve read the headlines - and as a follower of the Sustainable Futures Report you’re not surprised that the IPCC said:
“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”
…Although you may be surprised that after scrutiny by 195 nations it was still able to make such a robust statement.
Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered, they say. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.
Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.
And it goes on, and the consequences and the challenges have been picked over at length by the media.
We are where we are
Let’s not dwell on the fact that the IPCC and others have been warning of climate catastrophe for years, even decades. Cliché alert - we are where we are.
Time now for action, not despair.
Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific advisor, says that nothing short of transforming society will avert the climate catastrophe and achieving net zero will require action from everyone – with a renewed emphasis on science and innovation.
300 years of emissions
Let’s look at the actions needed to slow and reverse the impact of human activity on the climate. The first thing to recognise is that human activity has been adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere for nearly 300 years. However fast we decarbonise, their effects will continue to be felt for at least the next 20, 30, 40 years. Next year there will be more wildfires, droughts and flash floods, and so on for the foreseeable future, whatever we do. This will lead the denialists to complain that we are wasting our time and our money and there is nothing we can do. They will insist that we should continue to burn coal and oil and gas because without fossil fuels our economies will collapse and they will claim that abandoning fossil fuels will achieve nothing.
The science says different. Writing in the i-newspaper, James Dyke says that “if politicians were really serious about the 1.5°C target then they would have thrown the kitchen sink at efforts to stop burning fossil fuels.”
“… COP26 must apply a laser-like focus to nations’ decarbonisation plans. If they do not contain clear routes to near-term decreases in fossil fuel use then they should be called out for driving yet another nail into humanity’s coffin.”
Let’s tone down the hyperbole for a moment. I think that the first and most important thing that a government can do is launch a public information campaign. If as Patrick Vallance and colleagues say, we need to transform society, we need to get society on side. Government must lead and make it clear what the issues are and why and how changes are needed. It is essential that governments, all governments, must have a united front on this but there is talk that in the UK the prime minister and the chancellor are at odds because after the costs of the COVID pandemic the chancellor doesn’t want any more big spending. This suggests a misunderstanding of the urgency of the situation, and this in the country that is hosting COP26, arguably the most important international climate conference ever.
What actions should we take? Electrify the transport fleet? Everyone should drive electric cars.
Let’s look at the feasibility of this. First of all, electric cars are more expensive than petrol equivalents so not everyone can afford them. We’ll need to overcome this somehow in every country in the world. As an example, there are around 32m cars in the UK. If we are to replace them by 2030 we need to buy 3.5m electric cars per year each year for the next 9 years. And scrap a lot of petrol cars that are hardly worn out. Current UK car sales are around 2m pa and have never exceeded 3.1m. Apart from Tesla no car company is exclusively producing electric cars. Petrol and diesel cars are still being built and account for the majority of sales. Many of these cars will still be on the roads after 2030. We cannot reduce emissions sufficiently by relying on electric cars. Even if we could produce enough there is still the challenge of a massive charging infrastructure and enough clean electricity to power them.
The questions must be asked:
Where are people travelling?
Why are people travelling?
How can we reduce the need for travel?
Can we extend public transport to minimise and eventually eliminate emissions from transport?
Social changes such as these will be met with resistance unless people understand and accept the reasons for them.
Home heating is another major source of greenhouse gas emissions and therefore a cause of climate change. In the UK we are talking about replacing gas boilers with heat pumps which generally extract heat from the ambient air and are powered by electricity to do this. Another increase in demand for clean electricity in order to displace emissions-rich natural gas. Like electric cars, heat pumps are more expensive to buy than the alternatives. Electric cars at least have lower running costs because electricity per mile is significantly cheaper than petrol. On the other hand, heat pumps use a smaller amount of energy than gas boilers, but electricity costs more than gas so there’s no saving on running costs. Heat pumps are great if designed into new homes, but not nearly as effective if installed in older properties.
There are alternatives. District heating is widely used in North America and Europe but almost unheard-of in the UK. Incidentally I am presenting a discussion on district heating during York Environment Week next month. It will be available on demand. Details on the Sustainable Futures Report website shortly.
Hydrogen is proposed as a replacement for natural gas. The old town gas which was produced locally from coal was principally hydrogen. Splitting hydrogen from natural gas leaves CO2 so there’s no GHG saving there, but electrolysing hydrogen from water is emission-free, although it’s not very efficient and needs clean electricity.
It’s essential to minimise waste. The less heat wasted, the less energy consumed and paid for. Insulate your home. Or turn down the thermostat and put on an extra jumper.
Science and Innovation
As Patrick Vallance and colleagues say, we need a new emphasis on science and innovation. If this were China you would be told what to study and where to work if the nation demanded it. If this were wartime you’d be told exactly the same in the UK and any other nation. Arguably this crisis is as urgent - existential seems to be the buzz-word - as urgent as any war. We need to explore, examine and develop all possible technologies to meet the challenges of the climate crisis. Because the warning signs have been ignored for so long we need to do this as rapidly as possible, and when I say ‘we’ I mean the global community - every nation.
We need to mitigate, to slow down and eventually reverse the factors causing the climate crisis, and it will take decades. Because it will take decades, we need to adapt, to protect ourselves against the floods, fires and famines that will recur every year for the foreseeable future. And against their consequences.
Transport, heating, - FOOD!
Agriculture has a major part to play both in terms of mitigation and adaptation. Livestock farming releases significant amounts of methane. Ploughing the land releases carbon dioxide. We need to look at ways we can change this while maintaining the ability to feed the world’s population.
Cut Food Waste
Like heating, there is both a supply and demand aspect to this. If we can reduce food waste then we reduce the amount of food that we need to produce. Global food waste is currently estimated at around 30% of all food produced, although this varies from country to country and between different types of food groups.
Adaptation means protecting our agriculture so that it can continue to feed the world’s population even as it grows. Already climate change means that in some areas drought causes crops to wither and livestock to die, or floods wash away seeds before they can germinate. Wild fires are already causing shortages of some timber. The consequences of wildfires on croplands are unthinkable.
Professor Guy McPherson - I’ve described him as a catastrophist in the past - predicts a collapse of agriculture leading to the collapse of society. It’s not happened yet, and I’d like to believe that it won’t happen to the whole world all at the same time.
Research and Action
We need research, we need action. I’m just a commentator: I’m no expert, but it bears repeating that we need a renewed emphasis on science and innovation. We need it urgently because we have left it all so late.
What are the immediate consequences?
Extreme weather will continue. We can only do so much to adapt to it. When flash floods bring 100 times more water than normal no amount of dredging and clearing blocked drains will have any effect. As houses are washed away or crops and livestock die in droughts people will abandon their homes and become refugees. We will see a level of refugees unparalleled in history. We will face a moral dilemma. Do we ignore them and let them starve? Current British government policy suggests that we will do just that. We’re an island nation so we can keep them out. Australia is another island nation with similar policies. It imprisons would-be migrants on distant islands with no hope of release.
Surely the best thing we, the developed nations, can do is to help these people recover their homes and livelihoods as close to home as possible. At the 2015 Paris Conference where the Paris Agreement was signed, 18 countries - Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, and the European Commission - committed to providing $100 billion per year to help developing nations adapt. This target has been missed every year since. The UK government decided this year to reduce its overseas aid budget. £4bn is a drop in the bucket in terms of the UK’s budget but a shortfall which has led to humanitarian programmes being closed. Not a good example from the nation hosting COP26. Meanwhile The Rainforest Alliance reports that in the 5 years following the Paris Agreement the world’s 60 largest banks invested - wait for it - $3.8 trillion in fossil fuel industries.
Demand the impossible
Later this month XR will set out to blockade the City of London demanding that all fossil fuel investment should be halted. In the light of the IPCC report that surely doesn’t seem unreasonable, and no-one can say that there haven’t been many, many warnings already. XR’s overall objective is that governments should act urgently to recognise the science and address the climate crisis.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary has attempted to classify XR as a terrorist organisation which they certainly are not. Their supporters are specifically trained in non-violent protest. The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently going through Parliament but not yet law, will criminalise almost all future protests by anyone about anything. This is a dangerous head-in-the-sand approach to the climate crisis.
What hope is there for the future?
There is always hope. All eyes, of course, are on COP26 coming up in November, though from a UK perspective the autumn financial statement will reveal how much the government is prepared to spend domestically on addressing the crisis. The fact that the PM’s spokesperson on COP26 has said that she “doesn’t fancy an electric car just yet” trivialises the issue. We must hope she is better briefed well before the conference.
COP president-designate Alok Sharma has been criticised in the popular press for travelling 200,000 miles to meet government leaders face-to-face to prepare them for November's conference. He at least seems to be taking the whole thing seriously. Yes, air travel damages the planet, but the potential consequences of what is done or not done at COP26 are infinitely greater than a few air miles. Make no mistake, most decisions are taken well before the conference. Alok Sharma’s objective is to make sure that they are the right ones.
We all still have our part to play. Think carbon, and do what you can to minimise your impact on this world, and explain to others what you’re doing and why.
We can still meet the challenges of the climate crisis if we and our governments have the political will. The political will is driven by what the people want. What the people want is based on information. We must ensure that what they want is fuelled by facts and never based on fake news.
What do you think?
I’m Anthony Day
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next time.