We’ve only just reached April, and yet 2016 seems to be promising to be a truly historic year.
Politically and environmentally, there are some trends which are threatening to bring about significant and extensive change.
The first historic event is the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. As a non-politician, he has galvanised support from millions of apparently disenfranchised Americans with his peculiar – yet familiar – brand of arrogance and vilification of the ‘other’. Regarding climate change, Trump is no different from any of his fellow Republican candidates in being a sceptic, and vowing to overturn Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and to wheel back from the US’s Paris COP21 commitments. Whether or not Trump wins the election in November, his popularity is decidedly worrying, and will no doubt draw the Presidential debate to the right.
Closer to home, the EU referendum in Britain looms ever larger.
While the debate goes on about the political, economic and military implications that a ‘Brexit’ might entail, as far as environmental policy is concerned, independence would ensure the removal of some of our most significant protections. As a member of the EU, our largest emitting companies are obligated under the ‘Emissions Trading Scheme’ which requires them to reduce overall emissions overall and pay for polluting. The EU also requires products sold in the UK are also required to meet energy efficiency standards, and decisions such as the banning of incandescent lightbulbs have led to significant demand reductions and energy savings for consumers. Although in a poor state, our fisheries and air quality is also protected by EU regulation. Without these supra-national influences, environmental regulation would be subject to greater fluctuations in political will as a result of changing governments. Whilst the current administration has been widely criticised for creating instability with inconsistent and uncertain energy policy in the UK, at least the EU provides some continuity and a baseline for environmental responsibility for those of us seeking stronger action on climate change.
Ironically, many accounts have shown that the UK’s contribution towards environmental policy on the EU stage is remarkably progressive, with DECC (at least under the Liberal Democrat Ed Davey) pushing for higher emissions reduction targets, and playing a central role in the Paris COP21 negotiations in 2015.
Another major geopolitical phenomenon due to fill our news bulletins this coming summer is the so called ‘EU migrant crisis’. With the situation in Syria showing no signs of improvement, southern states of Europe are likely to see another mass movement of people, possibly even larger than in 2015. Some commentators linked the migration to climate change impacts, particularly caused by food shortages, which of course is never possible to prove, but would indicate that last summer’s ‘crisis’ could increasingly become the norm. Germany’s policy of accepting migrants seemed to ease the problem last year, and we must hope its ‘open-arms’ policy continues this summer. As an aside, this truly historic move from the Merkel government has received far less credit than it deserves in the British media – being discounted as driven by their ‘need for jobs’ for example.
It is a matter of debate as to which of these three geopolitical events deserves more of our concern and attention. Meanwhile, in 2016, the effects of climate change have now surely arrived, with February surprising even climate modellers by far exceeding all records as the warmest month since global surface temperature has been measured since 1850 – a record that was only just set by December 2015. On top of this, today a report was released indicating that the impact of ice melt from Antarctica has been underestimated by computer simulations of future climate impacts, leading to potentially far higher sea level rise. Impacts such as these will surely drive a positive feedback loop with some of the issues discussed above – migration, food shortages, and even greater nationalism. On the positive side however, there are some promising trends, with China’s use of coal dropping, and renewable energy reaching 24.7% of electricity generation in the UK in 2015, and overtaking coal for the first time. And on a personally exciting note, today also marks the release of the Tesla Model 3, which could prove to be a turning point for the mass adoption of electric vehicles (if only I had £20k to spend). If you don’t know much about Tesla, I highly recommend this very fun and readable article.
2016 is only 3 months old, but we’ve already seen some ground-breaking events and a lot of worrying, and some exciting trends. It will be fascinating to see how the rest of the year unfolds.
One of the stories which made headlines after the recent Paris climate talks was that the text included a commitment to “pursue efforts to” limit global temperature rise to 1.5 °C. This amendment to the agreed text was apparently led by a group of small island states, understandably fearing the consequences of a 2°C world for sea level rise and extreme weather events.
Nearly all reports from Paris were of an optimistic atmosphere, of agreement and hope for the future. There were many reasons for this, including the fact that climate science is becoming more irrefutable and the impacts of climate change are already being felt. One of the major differences between these set of talks (COP21) and previous international climate agreements which famously ended in strained efforts from world leaders, is that in Paris, the organisers were not aiming to produce a legally binding set of agreements, that would require unanimous support, and subsequent ratification. Recalling the arguments raging in the mid-2000s around the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by Russia, the USA and Canada, this seems like a wise move.
Instead, before the Paris talks, all UN states were invited to submit ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions‘ (INDCs), setting out their own nationally specific objectives regarding carbon emissions over the coming decades. In many ways, this meant that the hard work had already been done prior to the December 2015 talks. Of course, leaving these commitments to each nation (and in the case of Europe, the EU), meant that there were a wide variety of different metrics and measures used in these documents. China, for example, aimed to peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 making a commitment for emissions reductions of 60-65% per unit of GDP, whilst other countries made commitments based on gross emissions, such as the 40% reduction set out by the EU by 2030, and the 26-28% reduction targeted by the US, by 2025. Even where gross commitments were made, it is very difficult to compare countries due to differences in baseline and target years used.
Nonetheless, whilst the Paris talks were in mid-flow, the UNFCCC managed (somehow) to combine these commitments, and make an assessment of what kind of climate-future the world’s nations were committing to. Making this announcement, Christiana Figueres (Head of UNFCCC), declared that the combined INDCS amounted to around 2.7°C warming. A far cry from 1.5°C. And of course, this calculation assumes that all the countries do go on to implement their commitments and achieve the levels of emissions reductions set out. Thinking about the 40% reduction in the EU, this will be far from easy.
It seems to me that there is a determined optimism in much of the conversation about climate change. A faith that we will somehow manage to take all the measures required to keep warming down below dangerous levels. I was lucky enough to hear Christiana Figueres speak in Oxford before the Paris talks, and I was struck by her positive, optimistic outlook. Even when making her announcement about the 2.7°C commitments, she put a positive spin on this news, saying it was a real improvement on the 4-5°C predictions being made by many. Of course, you would want nothing short of this kind of optimism from someone in her uniquely difficult position, having to corral world leaders into agreement.
My concern however, is that followers of the agreement were left with an optimism that might border on complacency. Following developments via mainstream media for example, one might be forgiven for thinking that great progress had been made by our governments, and that climate change was going to be managed nicely by our elected superiors on our behalf. And yet it is not only those following climate change at arms length that seem to be in danger of this. At a recent meeting in the ECI, I was surprised to hear some of the Professors talking about a dearth of literature expanding on 1.5°C scenarios, and that the celebrations to mark the institute’s 25th birthday would be centred on a conference on the topic.
My personal view is that 1.5°C is entirely unrealistic. At best, the inclusion of this goal in the UN talks highlights the dangers of warmer scenarios, potentially instigating further action. But at worst, it detracts from the reality, that it is high likely we’ll see our climate warm by more than 2.5°C unless we take drastic, urgent action to curb emissions.