“It’s easy to think that as a result of the extinction of the dodo, we are now sadder and wiser, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that we are merely sadder and better informed.” – Douglas Adams
(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)
This week has seen the latest round of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP27, this year in Egypt. Rather than being a celebration of the 27th anniversary of the success of COP1 in 1995 and the averting of the climate emergency, we shall instead see a round of talks similar to COP26 in Glasgow concluding in some promises that shuffle us closer to oblivion just a little slower than we would have otherwise.
COP21 in Paris in 2015 showed us what we need to do if we want to live in a world remotely resembling the one we’ve come to know. Global warming cannot now be averted entirely, we are decades too late for that and the impacts of our actions today will take decades more to play out in full, but we can limit the damage. Limiting global average temperature rise to less than 1.5C above our preindustrial average will mean that the damage is likely to not be too great and to be significantly easier to adapt to than otherwise. Paris also said that the absolute limit of +2.0C must not be breached else we shall face a world that is so different from today that it is unlikely that we will be able to adapt in full. Anything beyond +2.0C massively increases the risks of the world spiralling into uncontrollable feedback loops that are simply unprecedented in terms of anything we know about the history of this planet. The only events that have looked similar – massive volcanic events or asteroid impacts – have created layers of fossils of now extinct ecosystems for future palaeontologists to call “interesting”.
It’s worth saying that +1.5C is not “safe”. No level of temperature rise is “safe”. Every fraction of a degree means more damage, more disruption and more death. Hence every fraction of a degree of temperature rise averted matters. We’re already at around +1.2C of warming and we’re already starting to see the effects of that – even though the worst of them will, as said, only arrive in decades to come. Even now, the rate and severity of extreme weather events such as floods and storms are increasing the risk at heavily populated areas of the world will simply not have time to rebuild between them. If you know that the house you lost in a hurricane is likely to be destroyed again in ten year, or five, or three, then maybe it’s time to leave and never return…if you’re lucky enough to have somewhere to go of course. As people move due to a climate emergency that they almost certainly didn’t cause, we see the risk of walls rising instead of doors opening.
So what have 20 years of climate talks actually done to our future? It would be unfair to say “nothing”. In the early 2000s, the “business as usual” projection for unmitigated climate emissions was estimating catastrophic climate change on the order of anything between +5.0C and +8.5C and actual emissions were trending upwards somewhere close to the upper ranges of those estimates. More recently, this “worst case” scenario has reduced somewhat to a lower “likely case” of about 2.7C as economic factors (higher efficiency devices, cheaper renewable energy and flattened economic growth in the energy-hungry “developed world” countering emissions-growth elsewhere) have brought our emissions down more by accident than by intent.
(Image Source: Climate Action Tracker)
Come 2021 and COP26 and we witnessed a conference that ended with the “success” of additional climate promises amounting to a world that reaches +2.4C. Still beyond the Paris absolute ceiling and still a world experiencing damage that would be an absolute catastrophe. And this is if every single promise made at COP26 is fulfilled on time, on budget and in full.
What this means is that the best that the collective will of every politician on the planet is currently offering is a global climate catastrophe. The magnitude of the catastrophe is almost irrelevant. If we breach our ceiling, all bets are off.
Of course, when was the last time you met a politician who kept their promises? COP27 was supposed to open with the world’s nations presenting their updated climate promises and their track record towards meeting them. Most countries have reneged on even this promise. Many are sliding backwards on their emissions targets. The UK is actively pushing for more oil and gas exploration and its PM had to be publicly shamed into attended COP27 at all after the bad PR that came out of his banning the King from attending (a noted environmentalist, even if some of his views are not backed by science) from attending and then seeing headlines of his predecessor Boris Johnson declaring that he’d go instead.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is also set to attend but this doesn’t exactly absolve her of Scotland’s failure to grasp our role in the climate emergency. Scotland’s “world leading” climate targets are only as strong as the actions taken to deliver them and we know that those climate targets are too often missed (usually announced with the excuse that, well, the targets were REALLY high so missing them is fine because we’re trying).
(Data Source: Scottish Government Climate Targets and Emissions)
But are we trying? Do the sum total of Scotland’s climate targets actually meet what the climate needs when we know that even a “world leading” target is insufficient?
Will the sum total of all of the promises from the Scottish Government result in Scotland meeting those targets? Not if the latest economic white paper had anything to say about it. It promised that an independent Scotland would commit just 1% of GDP to climate spending when we know the true figure must be several times that. Not if recent announcements at COP say so either. Sturgeon has announced that Scotland would be one of the first Developed Countries to contribute to a global Loss and Damage fund to help the Global South repair the damage we cause to them by our actions. I won’t understate the power and symbolism of being a tangible first mover in this field of politics but we also must look at the scale of the contribution – in this case, £7 million. Of all of the excess Carbon in the ecosphere, around 5% of it was put there by the UK – meaning that around 0.5% of it was put there by Scotland. It is estimated that the total bill could be around £510 billion per year by 2030. That means that Scotland’s equitable share of that loss and damage would be around £2.5 billion every single year. If you asked me for £250 and I gave you 50p, would you say that I was doing enough? Remember that the loss and damage bill will go up for every fraction of a degree of extra warming we cause. Action now means having to do less, and pay less, to deal with our inaction later.
Signalling not just intention to act but intention to act with the proper degree of action is important. What happens when climate targets can’t be met because the responsibility to deliver on them has not been taken up by the government but instead dumped on those least able to fulfil them?
What happens when a promise that relies on near-magical future technology that doesn’t yet exist, may never exist and we will only discover that it won’t exist too late to change course and do something to sort it?
And what happens when a well-meaning promise simply doesn’t turn out for any of the reasons that can plague a complex engineering project but there’s no slack in the system because the entire strategy is based on “Net Zero” instead of a true Green New Deal? Is to too much to ask that every country create, adopt and implement a Green New Deal blueprint as detailed and as comprehensive as the one the Scottish Government could offer the world if it wanted to? Is it too little to hope for less?
This COP, I hope Scotland will play the leadership role that the First Minister clearly would like to have at the conference and I hope that this COP finally, finally leads the world into accepting that we not only need to do more to avert the worst of the climate emergency but that we must also do enough to avert it. Being a world leader in this race means very little if it’s a race that, right now, we’re all losing.