Tories hit snooze button on climate wake up call

By Elspeth Findlay and Charlie Wilson

“Each day we let the crisis deepen, is a day too long”
Climate Crisis Advisory Group.

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) only came as a shock to anyone who – having neither looked out of the window nor seen the news this summer – still believes that “global warming” is a slow benign process that is well in hand, and only a threat in the “long term”.

The IPCC has a global authority not only because it combines the most current research from the world’s leading climate scientists, but also because its conclusions have to be signed off by all 195 governments that are party to the Paris Agreement. That gives it standing, but also means that it tends to be cautious and understate the severity of the situation, so that political consensus can be struck. For example, reviewers who saw earlier drafts made specific mention of fossil fuels. These have been dropped. Critically, in their five scenarios, the IPPC did not examine any higher ambition scenario than achieving net-zero carbon by 2050, calling this the “very low emissions scenario,” despite this leading to an expected overshoot of the 1.5 degree goal of the Paris Climate Agreement. As you might therefore expect, the path that the world has actually followed has tracked the “unlikely worst case scenario” in their range of model predictions over the last thirty years since their first report in 1991.

This is nevertheless a bottom line global consensus and the conclusion that the climate is heating from human activity generating greenhouse gases is “unequivocal”. So the well paid lobbyists peddling denial for cynical fossil fuel corporations, putting humanity at risk for the sake of a few more years’ profits, can no longer be given any credence. The jig is up.

The conclusions are that:

  1. Global temperatures will stop rising if – and only if – we stop adding emissions. We have to move much faster than we are, with 7% emissions cuts every year overall.
    This is equivalent to the temporary emissions fall in 2020 caused by lockdowns in the wake of COVID-19 happening each year. Emissions however are projected to rise by 5% in 2021 by the IEA
  2. In all five of the scenarios that the IPCC projects, the bottom line 1.5C limit will be overshot. The IPPC’s best case scenario, with all countries setting targets that bring CO2 to net-zero by 2050 and meeting them, projects an overshoot of temperatures rising by 1.6C by 2050, before a decline to 1.4C by 2100 which relies on large scale removal of emissions from the atmosphere at currently undemonstrated scales. Given the impacts we see around us at just 1.2C now, the rest of the century looks grim even in the best case. The worst case scenario is catastrophic. With minimal token action masking business as usual, we will be at 2.4C by mid century and 3.3C to 5.7C by the end of it. On that trajectory we could expect parts of the world to become uninhabitable by mid century; with sharp declines in agricultural productivity and viability in many places, and intensified floods and droughts leading to food and water shortages and the most pressured societies beginning to collapse; leading to wars within and between them.
  3. The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events increase as temperatures rise. Extreme heat events that would have been expected to occur once every ten years will take place every two years at 2C: and every year at 4C. Events that might have been expected once every 50 years will be 8.6 times more likely at 2C and nearly 40 times more likely at 4C.
  4. Whatever we do, sea levels are going to carry on rising for centuries.
    This will be at a minimum of 31 cm by 2100 – if the necessary action to keep the average global temperature rise at or below 1.5C is taken – and, if not, over a metre. This assumes a steady incremental change with no sudden shocks, or rapid changes. Given the accelerating and unprecedented rates at which the Greenland ice shelf and Antarctic glaciers are already melting, this is probably a bit on the hopeful side.

Whatever happens in the next few generations, the rapid increase in greenhouse gas emissions since industrialisation has baked in continuous sea level rises over centuries and possibly millennia. Most of the world’s great cities are coastal and most of humanity lives within 50 miles of the coast. Shanghai, New York, London, Jakarta and many other major cities are all at risk of increased floods and eventually permanent partial inundation; as are low lying regions like Florida, the Netherlands and Bangladesh. So, building on flood plains is a bad idea and coastal nuclear power stations are not a good bet.

Concerningly, the IPCC’s models assess that tipping points are high-impact, but low-probability, meaning that they are not accounted for in the likely scenarios. However, the past year has seen unprecedented activity in the Arctic and climate impacts not explainable at 1.2 degrees on current models. Already, the Amazon rainforest and the Artic have stopped acting as carbon sinks and become net emitters of carbon, due to melting permafrost, wildfires, and deforestation.

This report was on the front pages of most newspapers in strong terms, WAKE UP CALL, RED ALERT and so on – though the Times and the Telegraph had the item as their second lead; considering “grade inflation” in A levels far more worthy of attention and large headlines. The Daily Mirror, similarly, led on the Greensill scandal. This application of the “fatal but not serious” approach was reflected on TV, with Newsnight demonstrating its declining grip on gravitas by having Stanley Johnson of all people as its interviewee on the issue. Nothing so serious that it can’t be treated as light relief. The sense that much of the media, as much of the ruling class, is flinching away from reality – looking but not seeing – is inescapable.

Climate Crisis Advisory Group critique.

The Climate Crisis Advisory Group, set up by Sir David King, is inspired by Independent SAGE and aims to have a comparable role as a more agile public scientific voice than the IPCC and without the political restraints required of it to keep the Saudis and Australians – among others – on board, nor its necessarily ponderous five year reporting cycle.

It comprises 15 leading climate scientists from Africa, India, China, Europe, USA and Latin America. They will hold monthly update sessions which are likely to become the go to place for the global climate movement from here on to keep abreast of the crisis as it develops.

Their conclusions and critique of the IPCC are stark.

  1. The current impacts are not explained by the models used by the IPCC for our current level of 1.2C above pre industrial averages and are outrunning them
  2. The threshold for some tipping points has already been reached. The Amazon already releases more carbon than it absorbs. The Arctic – which is heating faster than the world as a whole- is releasing methane from melting permafrost.
  3. That means that 2050 is too late for net zero, so we need to be aiming at 2035 – 40. That means current plans to reduce emissions have to be increased five fold overall and action taken to remove carbon with geo engineering – the potential unintended consequences of which are unknown – and rewilding.

Their proposals are for

  • “Strong and rapid action to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in order to slow down the rate of global warming over the next twenty years with immediate effect.
  • Focus on near-term policies and actions (i.e. cutting global emissions by half each decade from 2020 onwards) which can be adopted to rapidly decrease emissions by over 90% while also delivering on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Support and maintain the existing and preserved carbon sinks and storages in natural ecosystems which are often also biodiversity hotspots
  • Enable the realisation of the rights of Indigenous and local communities in this historic transformation
  • Enable and support net zero pathways for nations and regions which are tailored to their circumstances, contexts and constraints, and are just, fair and peaceful, engaging the insights and resources of local communities
  • Enable and support a vast transformation of the energy sources used to power the global economy, going far beyond business-as-usual technological progress
  • Increased action and support, first and foremost from developed countries, is urgently needed. Pre-2020 reductions, net of Economies in Transition, greenhouse gas emissions reductions reached only 1.6% since 1990. The pace of decarbonisation in the advanced and emerging economies has to be far more aggressive than in their net-zero commitments so far.
  • Such ambitious mitigation pathways are characterized by energy demand reductions, decarbonization of electricity and other fuels, electrification of energy end use, deep reductions in agricultural emissions protecting food security, and some carbon storage on land or sequestration in geological reservoirs. Energy efficiency and reduced demand for land and greenhouse gas-intensive consumption goods facilitate limiting warming to as close as possible to 1.5°C.”

Johnson on snooze

By contrast, Boris Johnson made the following breezy comment. “We know what must be done to limit global warming – consign coal to history and shift to clean energy sources, protect nature and provide climate finance for countries on the frontline.”

Just like that.

The cut in the UK’s overseas aid budget shows how serious he is about the last point. It is indeed what needs to be done. But he’s doing the opposite.

The “protection of nature” is a rather twee phrase, implying that all will be well if we set up a few more national parks, like taking all the trees and putting them in a tree museum.

We need to move entirely to “clean energy sources”. It is not just coal that needs to be consigned to history, but all fossil fuels, and as rapidly as possible and we need to reduce energy demand with a scale of retrofitting that the Tories have had two goes at and created a fiasco on both occasions. The current pot for the entire public sector to bid for to make their buildings zero carbon is a miserable £15 million. Methane emissions from fracking, gas and oil wells are every bit as damaging as coal. Alok Sharma, after acknowledging that the consequences of failure will be “catastrophic” went on to defend continued oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. So, his message at COP26 will be “do as I say, not as I do”. Unfortunately, the continued focus of the IPCC on a net-zero target by 2050 is providing room for the absurd claim of the UK Government that G7 countries who have contributed most to climate change, are leading the way as they all have net-zero targets, and it is others countries who need to step up.

Despite it’s net-zero target, the UK plan to meet it for has been delayed to the Autumn and is likely to try to delay the necessary action, as Conservative backbenchers are using the current increase in fossil fuel prices to argue that energy bills are now so expensive that the additional costs of replacing them with renewable sources are “unaffordable”. The real test of any Government’s climate credentials right now is whether the enormous amounts of economic stimulus being spent in the wake of the pandemic is designed to reduce carbon emissions and deliver a transition to a clean economy. Unfortunately, the conservatives have spent at least £42billion on additional support for fossil fuel energy since the beginning of the pandemic, compared to £27.8 billion on clean energy.

The strategic weakness of the Conservative position is captured in this report from last week’s Observer. “Sharma used his first major interview as the clock ticks down to Cop26 to paint a picture of a healthier world within reach, if businesses and investors could be convinced to grasp the opportunities”. If business and investors could be convinced. Perish the thought that the survival of human civilisation might be sufficient motive for them to be compelled.

Next week we will look at Labour’s alternative.