The nations of the world tried to kick the climate change ball down the road.
Let’s not let that happen.
The Cooperative Society Newsletter
November 2021, Issue 32
by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
This is the last in a four-part series of newsletter articles on the impact of the pandemic on major issues affecting progress toward a more cooperative society. The May article focused on economic concentration and wealth inequality. The July article was about conflict and democracy. The September article analyzed the impact of COVID-19 on global population trends and the quality of life around the world.
This article looks at where we are in addressing the planet’s climate crisis.
What about climate change in the future?
Are we on the verge of dooming ourselves and our planet to an overheated, catastrophe-laden climate in the second half of the 21st century and beyond?
This article first addresses the impacts of COVID-19 on climate change. It then reviews the trajectory, and the major consequences, of the world’s projected temperature increase through the end of the 21st century. The conclusion presents several actions that can be taken to avoid the extreme negative consequences likely to occur as anticipated by current projections.
Minor impact of COVID-19
Unlike the six other issues reviewed in this series of newsletters, COVID-19 has had a relatively minor impact on climate change. There was a short-term reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in 2020. However, “Despite a world economy that slowed significantly because of COVID-19, the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record.” In addition, “Global CO2 emissions rebound[ed] by nearly 5% in 2021, approaching the 2018-2019 peak.”
The bad news
The 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, held in the first half of November 2021, was intended to forge agreements by the UN’s 198 members to prevent this calamity. It failed to do so.
As summarized by Climate Analytics, “To achieve the Paris Agreement Temperature Goal [1.5°C above preindustrial levels], net zero CO2 emissions need to be achieved globally around mid-century and net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases shortly thereafter. In the near term, global greenhouse gas emissions need to be halved by 2030.”
The Climate Action Tracker provides a detailed analysis of the “lip service” on climate action emerging from the Glasgow conference:
- “With all target pledges, including those made in Glasgow, global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will still be around twice as high as necessary for the 1.5°C limit.
- “Stalled momentum from leaders and governments on their short-term targets has narrowed the 2030 emissions gap by only 15-17% over the last year.
- “With 2030 pledges alone – without longer-term targets – global temperature increase will be at 2.4°C in 2100.
- “The projected warming from current policies (not proposals) – what countries are actually doing – is even higher, at 2.7°C with only a 0.2°C improvement over the last year and nearly one degree above the net-zero announcements governments have made.
- “Since the April 2021 Biden Leaders’ Summit, the CAT’s standard “pledges and targets” scenario temperature estimate of all NDCs and binding long-term targets has dropped by 0.3°C to 2.1°C, primarily down to the inclusion of the U.S. and China’s net zero targets, now formalised in their long-term strategies submitted to the UNFCCC.
- “While the projected warming from all net zero announcements, if fully implemented – the CAT’s ‘optimistic scenario’ – is down to 1.8°C by 2100, this estimate is far from positive news, given the quality of the net zero goals and the massive ambition and action gap in 2030.
- “This ‘optimistic’ pathway is a long way from the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C limit, with peak 21st century warming of 1.9°C and about a 16% chance of exceeding a warming of 2.4°C.”
We are already experiencing an increase in extreme weather events due to rising temperatures, even though the average world temperature in 2020 was “only” 1.1°C above preindustrial levels. So, in reality, rising temperatures – primarily caused by humans burning fossil fuels – result in a continuum of increasing disasters, which have already begun.
The major culprits
According to a recent New York Times article, “The world’s four biggest emitters – China, the United States, the European Union and India – are responsible for just over half of global greenhouse gas output . . . . “
But these data don’t tell the whole story. For example, Australia, followed closely by Indonesia, are the world’s largest coal exporters; Saudi Arabia leads the world in crude oil exports; Russia is, by far, the world’s largest natural gas exporter. To curb future greenhouse gas emissions, it is important to look at both the sources of fossil fuel production as well as where it is consumed.
Some positive opportunities
The current, anemic greenhouse gas emission goals set by most countries don’t yet mean we’re doomed to exceed the 1.5°C target. There is still time to strengthen the world’s commitment to drastic reductions in emissions by 2030, and to net zero emissions by 2050, that would keep the 1.5°C target in reach at the end of the 21st century.
Following are five major ways in which the world could get on track during the remainder of this decade to save itself from catastrophe. Some of these positive approaches are already underway and should be ramped up in 2022 and beyond. The others should begin in 2022 and expand in future years.
1. Strengthening country-level greenhouse gas emissions goals
Despite the inadequate goals set by many countries at the Glasgow conference, the meeting concluded by strongly encouraging countries with weak goals to strengthen them by November 2022, when the next climate change conference is scheduled. There are a number of factors, discussed below, that should influence these countries to get more serious about their commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Thus far, many developed countries have pledged funds to assist developing countries to reduce carbon emissions and to protect themselves from the ravages of climate change (for example, the effects of rising sea levels on island nations). At Glasgow, there was a renewed commitment by many developed countries to make good on these pledges.
One important example of a new agreement reached at the conference is an $8.5 billion pledge by the European Union, the UK, and the U.S. to help South Africa transition away from coal to renewable energy.
2. Improved measurement, enforcement, and incentive mechanisms
One of the shortcomings of the current International climate change measurement system is that countries are essentially monitoring and policing their own performance. This has created an overestimation of carbon dioxide reductions in some countries. For example, Malaysia claims to be sequestering a huge amount of carbon in forests, but there is no scientific support for this assertion.
Satellite technology related to climate change has improved dramatically in the past few years and is now able to detect carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gas emissions emanating from specific countries. This technology and other measurement approaches can be used in the future to create a “third-party” verification of whether or not specific countries are achieving or misrepresenting their climate change impacts.
3. Carbon border taxes
Carbon border adjustment taxes are being proposed by the European Union and under discussion in the United States. These taxes would be based on calculations of carbon dioxide emitted by imported fossil fuels and the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in the production of proposed import goods. For example, potential coal imports from Australia or steel imports from China would be subject to carbon taxes based on their climate change impacts. This would have two main effects: creating incentives for exporting countries to reduce the carbon impact of exported products, and protecting the producers of low-carbon products in importing countries.
4. Increased private sector leadership on achieving carbon reduction goals
There are a number of large corporations that are taking actions to reduce their carbon footprints and produce green energy products. For example, Fortescue, a large Australian company, has ambitious plans to develop and export green hydrogen (produced by renewable energy). There are also a consortia of corporations that are making net zero carbon commitments and focusing their investments on clean energy companies.
Cooperative businesses are particularly well suited to several types of economic activity that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, community solar cooperatives can address the electricity and clean cooking needs of tens of millions of people in developing countries. Sustainable forestry and agricultural cooperatives can increase the amount of carbon sequestered in the forests and land of their members in both developed and developing countries.
5. Grassroots action around the world supporting climate goals and protesting against climate laggards
There were thousands of people who participated in marches in Glasgow and around the world to protest the weak outcomes of the recent climate change conference. Popular pressure can continue to have an impact on moving countries and corporations toward more serious commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the likelihood of keeping the earth’s temperature at or below 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.
So, are we heading to more “blah, blah, blah” for the remainder of the decade, or was Glasgow the beginning of a serious and urgent series of actions that will put the world on course for a livable climate at the end of the century? The jury is still out. But we are all on that jury. The way we conduct our own lives, influence the behavior of those around us, and vote can help bend the curve toward lower carbon emissions and a more habitable planet.