Rising sea levels and extreme hot weather highlight a once in a lifetime opportunity to tackle the climate crisis

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From the stark warnings of the IPCC report to the fossil fuel greenwashers and a Green New Deal, Lee Burkwood analyses what the challenges and opportunities we face as a planet to tackle climate change.

 

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is a reminder of the climate crisis we face. The report shows that land and ocean have taken up a high proportion of CO2 emissions from human activities over the past six decades and that emissions are responsible for 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming since 1900 and is 1 degree higher across the globe in the last decade, than between 1850-1900. It also projects that if we go above 1.5 degrees Celsius in the decades to come, this will lead to extreme heat, which will impact agriculture and people’s health. [i]

We have recently seen extreme heat has devastating effects. Earlier this year in Perth, Australia, over 70 homes were destroyed by wildfires, and over 22,000 acres of farmland were also caught up in this. The BBC also produced an analysis earlier this year which showed that the amount of days in which 50 degrees Celsius was recorded across the world has doubled since the 1980s.

In addition, according to the IPCC, the average sea level rise was 1.3mm a year between 1901 and 1971 but increased by 3 times that amount between 2006 and 2018.[ii]

Sea levels rises have also had a stark effect recently. In London on 25th July 2021, there was flash flooding of 100mm of rain in one day. Homes were evacuated and tube stations and roads were blocked off. London experienced over a month’s rainfall in one day! There’s also been flooding in China, Germany, and Indonesia earlier this year, which displaced 22,000 people. The IPCC have warned that even a 1.5 degree rise in global temperatures (which was agreed upon as the limit  in Paris five years ago) is likely to increase flooding in parts Africa and Asia. [iii]

What could also cause more flooding, according to the IPCC report, is that the Arctic is projected to be ice-free mid-century under high Greenhouse Gas emissions scenarios. Mid to high emissions, according to the report, range between roughly 4000 and 11000 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide between the years 1850-2100. [iv] In July, Arctic sea ice fell to the lowest on record for that time of year.

So, what are world leaders planning to do? In November 2021 is “COP 26”, which is the 26th “Conference of the Parties”, where 197 countries are getting together to discuss how to combat the climate crisis and build on the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 and reach net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century. They are meeting between 31st October and 13th November and have four main goals.

The first goal is Mitigation. This calls on all countries to update their National Determined Contributions of cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions. These are updated every five years and each country will be expected to update their 2030 targets coming into COP 26. According to Climate Watch, the top three emitters of carbon are China, the EU and the United States. However, EU countries have cut their emissions, while China and the US have increased their emissions per capita slightly in recent years. Under Donald Trump, the US left the Paris Agreement, and Joe Biden’s administration has re-joined and promised action on climate change. Biden has set a target to US net greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent below 2005 levels in 2030, which would be 3 billion tonnes. The US currently contribute 11% of total emissions.

Lastly, part of the mitigation goal is to “accelerate from coal to clean power” — yet the UK, which is hosting COP 26, is, as things stand, allowing a new coal mine to open in Cumbria and an oil field in Scotland. The UK’s hypocrisy was further exposed by an embarrassing email leak in September this year showing that they took climate change pledges out of a trade deal with Australia and over the last two years have met fossil fuel firms a staggering nine times as often as clean energy ones. It was also revealed that last year in Texas, representatives from various fossil fuel companies lobbied the UK Trade Minister about investing in natural gas.

The next goal of COP 26 is Adaptation. This is to help those most vulnerable to climate change with early warning systems, flood defences, and resilient infrastructure. The UK has co-founded the Adaptation Action Coalition alongwith Egypt, Bangladesh, Malawi, the Netherlands, and Saint Lucia. This sounds good on the surface, but the UK spending on flood defences has been cut over the last decade, and they have cut foreign aid spending from 0.7 of GDP to 0.5 GDP.

On the goal of Finance, the main target here is for developed countries to support developing countries by meeting their goal of £100 billion of climate finance every year for developing countries. This is intended to encourage countries to do this as fast as possible without enforcement. The goal of Finance also separates public and private finance. Public finance for infrastructure and private finance for “technology and innovation.” It also states that it wants to “unleash trillions” of private finance into climate investment by connecting available capital with investable projects in developing countries. What this means for developing countries in terms of how much debt they could owe private companies and other countries remains unclear.

In the COP 26 report on “building a private finance system for net zero”, it states Climate Action 100+, a group of over 500 institutional investors controlling over $47 trillion of assets, are demanding that the world’s 161 highest emitting companies reduce emissions 45% by 2030 and become net zero by 2050. They have also called on these firms to show progress, threatening action if they don’t see this in the next 12 months. However, World Bank is on the Steering Committee for the Finance group but interestingly hasn’t committed to divesting its investments in fossil fuels.

The last goal for COP 26 is on Collaboration. This involves creating a worldwide system of “Carbon Credits”. Carbon Credits allows companies to “compensate” for their Greenhouse Gas Emissions.  However, a Guardian and Greenpeace investigation found flaws in a particular forest protection scheme that airlines invested in to offset their carbon emissions. The schemes over-exaggerated the impact they had on deforestation, calling into question the effectiveness of Carbon Credits. Furthermore, COP states it wants to establish a system that encourages all countries to keep to their commitments. Nothing they present, however, is enforceable.

Whilst there is enthusiasm from the goals of COP 26 to take action on the climate crisis, and a large amount of money has been promised, the initiatives seem to lack enforceability, lack specific detail on how these goals can be achieved, and, quite frankly, are also challenged by the hypocrisy of the UK, which is hosting the conference. This could mean that this two-week conference could be, if you excuse the pun, a cop-out.

Further obstacles to serious action on the climate crisis show that despite the fossil fuel company Shell setting a goal to become a net zero goal by 2050, they plan to export 33m tonnes of liquefied gas, which will expand its gas business by 20% over the next few years.  Indeed, the organisation Client Earth uncovered evidence that Shell wants to grow their fossil gas operations until it occupies over half its energy business by 2030.  It is worth looking at Client Earth’s filesregarding nine different fossil fuel companies that mislead people about their commitment to tackling the climate crisis.

In addition to this, Shell also signed a sponsorship agreement earlier this year with the Science Museum in London, which sponsored a climate change exhibition and had a gagging clause that banned the exhibition from criticising shell for its role in the climate crisis. So even places that are meant to educate people on the impact of the climate crisis are being gagged by oil companies. Furthermore, it was discovered that a chief executive of a north sea oil company, Orcadian Energy, claimed the climate emergency was fake. It is clear there needs to be international and legal enforcement on fossil fuel companies. How can we trust them to act to cut their carbon emissions sustainability given the evidence highlighted above?

Lastly, I’m going to set out what I believe we need to do going forward on the climate crisis, in particular the UK, where I live. I make no secret that my politics are firmly on the left, but here is what the Conservative government plans to do on climate change. According to Boris Johnson’s “Green Industrial Revolution” plan, the UK will invest £12 billion and potentially mobilise three times as much from the private sector. This includes investments in offshore wind, low carbon hydrogen, nuclear power, and ending the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030.  An update in April stated that the UK’s plans under Johnson’s government would cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 and bring the UK “three-quarters of the way to net zero by 2050”.

Now, in principle I don’t have an issue with a lot of that, and unlike some on the left in UK politics, I do believe Nuclear Power should be part of the mix of clean energy. Despite issues around how you store waste and Uranium mining, it is, for the most part, safe and efficient and lasts for decades. France uses 70% of its energy from Nuclear and has one of the lowest per capita carbon emissions in the EU.

However, I don’t believe the UK government is doing enough and in some areas are going backwards. The government issued 113 licences to drill for oil last year. Even with the “Green Industrial Revolution” plans, it still relies on most of the investment to come from the private sector, with no guarantees on how to secure this. Without guarantees, there is a big risk that the UK will fall way behind on its obligations.

So now this arrives to what I believe the UK and the world should be doing. At the recent UK Labour Party conference, who are the official opposition, delegates passed a motion on a Green New Deal. Although this doesn’t specify on the amount of money the UK should spend, it did set out key principles such as public ownership of energy companies, creating a “just transition” for workers in polluting industries, a green job guarantee on trade union rates for workers, public ownership of railways, free local bus networks, and a National Nature service, including ten new national parks. It also made clear there should be debt relief and financial assistance for developing countries.

Additionally, Rachel Reeves, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, committed to £28bn a year to tackle climate change, which included investment in electric vehicles, offshore wind, home insulation, tree planting, and flood defences. This surpasses Boris Johnson’s spending pledges and guarantees most of the funding would come from state investment.

Although, there is a disagreement between the leadership and the members of the Labour Party about whether public ownership of energy should be part of Labour’s offering to the country in the next election, I believe that given the current energy crisis in the UK, state ownership could secure the energy sector and bring prices down for consumers. In fact, most of the British public support this. You don’t even have to go for an old-fashioned form of nationalisation.  For example, according to the campaign group, We Own It, Denmark has the highest proportion of wind power in the world, and most wind farms are cooperatively or community owned. Empowering local communities to tackle the climate crisis is an opportunity worldwide for politicians to give power back to the people they serve.

So, the key question is, how would this be paid for? Well, for instance, levies on flying, on high-carbon services could raise £27bn a year by 2030, according to the Zero Carbon Campaign. The EU is also considering taxes on imports of high carbon goods, although attempts to coordinate a Carbon Tax globally has failed to take off.

To sum up, the IPCC report and the extreme weather this year shows the climate emergency we are in. Despite some encouraging noises from COP26, we still have a huge challenge with fossil fuel companies lobbying and greenwashing and governments around the world not wanting to act fast and radical enough. There is a huge opportunity with a Green New Deal that provides social and environmental justice with new well-paid, secure, and unionised jobs. A 2019 study on the job impacts of a Green New Deal style program in the US state of Colorado alone showed it would create 100,000 jobs per year.

There are grassroots movements from the Sunrise Movement in the US to the school climate strikers across the worldthat are continuing to push for radical action to the climate crisis. I urge everyone to get involved in climate justice movements in the countries you live in and to lobby your politicians. Will COP26 be a missed opportunity for our world leaders to tackle the biggest challenge facing our planet? For all our sakes, let’s hope not.

 

 

END NOTES

[i] www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf

[ii] www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf

[iii] www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf

[iv] www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf

 

Image: Thukral and Tagra Studio / Internet

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