Is 2020 the world’s last chance to tackle climate change?
As we enter a make-or-break decade in addressing the crisis, just three of 197 countries have met an agreed deadline to strengthen climate plans
Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson’s first steps this month in attempting to forge a new global consensus were widely considered a car crash. Photograph: Jeremy Selwyn/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
To say humanity is entering a make-or-break decade is no exaggeration, given the latest climate science. The year 2020 arrived with much talk of what had to be done by 2030. It is becoming increasingly clear that actions over the coming months will be critical. Get it wrong, and we are in uncharted territory, and the Paris Agreement of 2015 risks foundering.
If activated now, long overdue measures will set the correct course for the coming years in addressing the climate crisis. This is the case globally and in the Irish context. Yet only three signatories out of 197 countries – Norway, the Marshall Islands and Suriname – met a symbolic deadline of February 9th to strengthen plans to fight climate change.
These involved hard decisions on cutting carbon emissions, adopting renewable energy and making the world more climate-resilient. Only if vague aspirations become binding targets is there any chance of containing global temperature rise.
Such decisions become even more important if Donald Trump, head of the world’s second biggest carbon-emitting country, is re-elected later this year. China, the biggest emitter, has been showing signs of stepping up to the plate but its coronavirus crisis could derail efforts.
The short-term timetable is looking ever less realistic. “Global Britain” with Boris Johnson at the steering wheel has said it wants to lead the world into more ambitious climate actions. In November, Britain co-hosts with the UN the COP26 (the 26th “Conference of the Parties”) summit in Glasgow.
But Johnson’s first steps this month in attempting to forge a new global consensus were widely considered a car crash. He sacked COP26 president and former energy minister Claire O’Neill. O’Neill responded on the BBC by accusing him of not understanding the climate emergency, of lack of commitment and of being untrustworthy. Since then, Alok Sharma was promoted to business secretary and put in charge of COP26.
The UK has been in the vanguard of global climate action over the past decade, yet Johnson’s only new measure has been to move from 2040 to 2035 the deadline for phasing out diesel and petrol cars. It was dismissed by the motoring industry as “a date without a plan”.
Former UN climate envoy Mary Robinson said the perception that major British politicians – including ex-prime minister David Cameron and former foreign secretary William Hague – were unwilling to take on the role of leading COP26 summit was damaging.
“It is not helpful that we are getting the impression that nobody in the UK wants the job. I mean, come on!” she told the Guardian. “The UK asked for this, they pitched for this responsibility ... They must carry it forward. I do not see a coherent drive for [the summit] in the UK.”
This was to be the year to firm up the Paris pact, yet the risk is it will unravel. This risk has increased, notwithstanding the European Green Deal, under which the EU has committed to becoming the first carbon-neutral continent.
In parallel, Ireland’s recent momentum on climate action has been stalled by the election, while its “how to” plans (National Energy and Climate Plan and the long-term strategy to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 required by the EU), are overdue.
This is the decade when global carbon emissions will finally be forced down by collective action, or we will fail and experience increasingly catastrophic effects of an overheating world.
The 2020s are the last opportunity to retain control over what happens to this generation. In the next decade we have a chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate disruption.
The one piece of good news defying expectations is global CO2 emissions flatlined in 2019 – it remains to be seen if that is a temporary blip.
By 2030 global emissions have to be cut by 55 per cent if there is to be any realistic chance of achieving carbon-neutrality by 2050.
The Paris deal is emphatic: keeping temperature increases to within 1.5 degree above pre-industrial (late 19th century) levels is the over-riding priority. Human-induced warming reached 1 degree in 2017 and, if this pace of warming continues, it will hit 1.5 degrees around 2040.
Wildfires, cyclones, droughts, melting ice sheets and record temperatures point to “here and now” extremes driven by a disturbed climate. The latest UN Environment Programme (UNEP) “emissions gap report” provides the best where-we-are-at summary. Unless the world begins to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the 1.5 degree goal of the Paris Agreement “will slip out of reach”.
There is an ever-growing gap between actual emission reduction commitments by the countries necessary to achieve the Paris goals.
Global emissions have increased by 11 per cent since the first gap report in 2010. Each year of growing emissions means deeper and faster cuts are needed to meet Paris targets. This increases the amount of CO2 needing to be removed from the atmosphere to make the 1.5 degree target realisable.
There is no sign of emissions peaking – Ireland is typical in that regard. Even if countries meet their existing climate pledges, emissions will continue to rise modestly over the next decade, the UNEP says. By 2030, it estimates emissions will be 38 per cent higher than what is needed.
Current projections are for a three-degrees-warmer world – one of flooded cities, repeated agricultural failures and deadly heat. Many of the models that flagged that scenario in recent years are now predicting a far worse one of 5 degrees plus. Many countries have enacted climate mitigation policies, and clean energy technologies have fallen dramatically in cost, but global emissions are still far too high.
A carbon budget is defined as a safe quantity of emissions over a specified time. It needs to be in line with what is scientifically required to keep global warming, and thus climate change, “tolerable”.
Environmental commentator John Gibbons says the amount of carbon that can be emitted globally to keep within 1.5 degrees is running out. If it was a bucket, based on current emissions, it would be almost full, with only 9 per cent of our global carbon budget left.
“At the current rate, it expires by the end of the 2020s,” says Gibbons, after which dangerous tipping points loom.
This requires facing up to the demands of “stopping distance”; similar to driving a car, where you need to hit the brakes well before the critical point to avoid a collision ie climate catastrophe. Difficulties are compounded by unravelling of global solidarity and an increase in populism, “when we need to act in a multilateral way”. Everybody is protecting their own patch, Gibbons adds.
On energy, “a colossal jump is needed”, he says, to ensure rapid decarbonisation. The recent $2 trillion Saudi Aramco initial public offering, the world’s biggest share offering ever, illustrates the scale of the task as “markets have baked in the burning of billions of barrels of oil for the coming decade”.
It’s business as usual for the industry and enterprise. There is no dramatic change, just “a garnish of greenwashing”. Carbon is not part of the critical dialogue, which makes Gibbons profoundly pessimistic. “If we have another decade like the past one, we will pass the point of no return.”
Prof Brian Ó Gallachóir, director of MaREI energy research institute in UCC, says strong political consensus built in Paris “has not translated into necessary action to deliver on that ambition”. There was optimism then, though analysis was needed to articulate what was required.
Now climate science is confirming how bad things are, “and getting worse”. What’s more, there is a pattern of “increased living experience of climate change”.
While young people are getting more anxious at the failure of the political system, society and industry continue to grasp what is required to remain within a carbon budget of 1.5 degrees.
Implications for Ireland
Ó Gallachóir underlines the need for a broad range of measures that must be adopted and quickly implemented by a new government.
Massive electrification (especially for transport) is required, he says, and there was huge ambition in the outgoing government’s climate plan in aiming to cater for 70 per cent renewables on the power grid. Based on current trends, however, we would only achieve 14 per cent of renewables in overall energy use by 2030.
We are doing well in some areas but complacent in others, Ó Gallachóir adds. There is a pressing need to improve the energy performance and carbon impact of buildings; there has been an emphasis on shallow retrofitting homes (ie insulating attics) when deep retrofitting (insulating walls and windows and utilising a heat pump) is required.
With plans to deep-retrofit hundreds of thousands of houses by 2030 at up to €50,000 per building, an innovative financial mechanism to make it affordable is urgently needed. Householders don’t know where to start on this.
There are blindspots too, says Ó Gallachóir. There is huge potential from biogas (biomethane), he insists, in helping to reduce emissions in agriculture and as a partial solution in freight transport. Yet the policy focus has been on a limited number of options. “If they don’t deliver, then we fail.”
Energy performance overall is not what it should be, and Irish emissions continue to rise. The scale of the challenge is not fully understood, Ó Gallachóir adds.
There are significant issues in agriculture including a growing emissions scenario. Beef is not providing sufficient income. Efforts to reduce the problem often consist of little more than finger-pointing at the agriculture sector. This, he notes, leads to defensiveness from the sector, which points to the low-carbon footprint of a litre of milk or a steak – “which is not untrue”.
Proper discourse is needed but polarisation, the kind engendered by Brexit and Trump, risks making it intractable, “where you cannot even discuss issues”. The need for energy efficiency is widely recognised along with the importance of renewable electricity from wind and solar. But “anything involving burning fuels” has become divisive, he says.
The Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland centre is a global leader on energy modelling. Its projections on the path to decarbonisation indicate that renewables “get us only half way there”. So bioenergy and biogas have to be in the medium-term mix.
Where gas is used, Ó Gallachóir stresses, it should be the fossil-free form. Renewable gas/biomethane is a clean, renewable and carbon-neutral fuel usable in the national grid. Its potential as a fuel for heat, electricity and transport is undeniable.
How can polarisation be overcome to ensure proper discourse? The citizens’ assembly approach can work in this case, but needs to move centre stage, he adds. The science demands a sense of emergency, but that too can lead to polarisation.
It is not a matter of achieving consensus but proper evaluation of what is required, leading to actions and solutions. Urgency is growing; “intention is there but will is a challenge”.
An added complication has been the worrying evidence of growing eco-anxiety among young people. “They should be commended for how they raised the issue but it’s totally unfair that it required them to go on strike.”
Anxiety is being added to by lack of action, he says. The level of political discourse has changed dramatically in the past year.
If everybody became more proactive on climate and were assured they are being heard “in a way they are comfortable with”, there would be a much stronger platform to take on board the immense challenge of the coming decade.
Ireland has to pull its weight in terms of meeting its international obligations in realising its fair share of the carbon budget, according to climatologist Prof John Sweeney.
Governments will have to face up to what is required not only in making a global contribution to reducing emissions but also must address the reality of adaptation. The costs of ensuring Ireland is adequately protected from the effects of climate disruption, especially from inevitable flooding and pounding of the coastline from more frequent storm surges. There will also be consequences for the way we produce food and for tourism, Sweeney adds.
The outgoing government’s climate plan was “wholly deficient in contributing appropriately to emission reductions which the UN secretary general [António Guterres] estimated as requiring on a global basis 7.6 per cent reductions every year for the next decade’.
The current Irish trajectory is a mere 2 per cent reduction. “We cannot criticise other nations for playing the national self-interest card if we ourselves seek to do the same.”
Whereas in Paris countries came together to do business, in 2019 at COP25 in Madrid some of them, notably wealthy G20 states, came to obstruct progress and to place narrow national and financial interests ahead of urgent global community needs.
“The stakes are unbelievably high and the ‘egg timer’ of the remaining carbon budget is fast emptying,” Sweeney adds.
There are those who believe 2020 is the world’s last chance to tackle climate change and protect biodiversity.
When world leaders gather this year at the UN General Assembly and at COP26, strong leadership will be needed if the tide of climate disruption has any chance of being turned during the next decade.