Sustainability & CSR

Tackling the climate emergency: Reasons to be cheerful?

18 April, 2024

Part 1: Does global policymaking offer any hope of a solution?    


By Mike Jewell

Prophetic words from St. Augustine back in 400 AD, but I doubt he realised just how relevant they would be for humanity some 1,700 years later.

As the sun set on the oil-soaked sands of Dubai at the conclusion of the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference (the Conference of the Parties, COP28 for short), those closest to the conference hailed the final agreement as a watershed moment and a turning point in our efforts to minimise the damage we are causing to Earth’s climate.

Conference president Sultan al-Jaber exclaimed triumphantly, "we have language on fossil fuels in our final agreement for the first time ever. We should be proud of our historic achievement."

Others echoed his sentiments:

“Humanity has finally done what is long, long, long overdue.” (Wopke Hoekstra, European Union commissioner for climate action.)

"Today's agreement marks the beginning of the post-fossil era," tweeted Ursula von der Leyen. 

“This climate conference seals the end of the fossil fuel era,” said German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock.

Canadian environment minister Steven Guilbeault: “COP28 reached a historic agreement. ... The text has breakthrough commitments on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and the transition away from fossil fuels.”

The official verdict from the UN, the organisation behind COP, was equally bullish:
“COP28 was particularly momentous as it marked the conclusion of the first ‘global stocktake’ of the world’s efforts to address climate change under the Paris Agreement. Having shown that progress was too slow across all areas of climate action – from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to strengthening resilience to a changing climate, to getting the financial and technological support to vulnerable nations – countries responded with a decision on how to accelerate action across all areas by 2030. This includes a call on governments to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels to renewables such as wind and solar power in their next round of climate commitments.”

So that’s all good then.

Except that all the goals and targets are non-binding, and there is no enforcement mechanism. The success or failure of the initiatives is wholly dependent on the willingness of the signatories to implement them, as UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell emphasised in his closing remarks: “Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay.”

The evidence of responses to past COP accords suggests that all the optimistic spin around the latest agreement will prove to be little more than vain hope and that far too little real action will be taken to bring about the fundamental and immediate change that is needed if runaway climate change is to be avoided.

There is no doubt that, outside of COP, significant efforts are being made to move towards an emission-free world where we no longer disgorge gigatonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels to meet our ever-growing appetite for energy.

The International Energy Authority (IEA) stated in its 2023 update to its “Net Zero Roadmap” that there has been rapid progress in the deployment of key clean energy technologies, such as wind power, solar PV and electric vehicles, with major policy initiatives introduced in many economies to advance them further. At the same time, the costs of clean energy are coming down. For example, in many parts of the world, it is now cheaper to develop onshore wind farms and solar power projects than new fossil fuel plants.

The IEA notes that all the current activity is bringing about major changes in the global energy landscape, with a surge in clean energy technology adoption well beyond previous expectations, suggesting that demand for fossil fuels will peak before 2030, that will herald the start of a downward trend in annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The EU is leading the way. Harmful emissions from the 27 member states declined by 3% in 2022, representing a drop of one third since 1990. Meanwhile, 39% of the bloc’s energy needs in 2022 were met by renewables. (However, the rest of the world has progressed much more slowly. Overall, emissions globally continue to increase, and the proportion of electricity generated from wind and solar sources worldwide was only 12% in 2022.)   

Hand in hand with these moves towards clean energy sources is extensive innovation, focused on a raft of new technologies that will supposedly enable the world to eliminate emissions. Heavy industry is looking into ways of reducing its emissions, for example via direct carbon capture and 100% electrolytic hydrogen-based production processes. New battery chemistries are emerging that will reduce dependence on scarce critical minerals and alternative fuels are being trialled for major polluters the airline and shipping industries.

Meanwhile, in Iceland, a giant mechanical vacuum is being developed which will suck vast quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that will then be secreted away deep underground.

Elsewhere, researchers are testing whether adding iron to the ocean could carry carbon dioxide to the sea floor rather than up into the atmosphere. Some are working on so-called “solar geoengineering”, looking at the possibility of inserting particles into the stratosphere or whitening clouds over the oceans as a form of sunblock, while others are investigating the feasibility of giant parasols in space to shade Earth from direct sunlight.

This type of technology, based on re-engineering the natural environment, was for a long time largely overlooked, considered too expensive, too impractical, too fanciful. Now, though, with the world failing to cut greenhouse gas emissions, countries’ energy transition plans are increasingly turning to technological solutions alongside clean energy sources, while concerns about their effectiveness, safety, and long-term impact on the global eco-system are largely shelved.

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The underlying problem with all the current efforts is that they are far too late, and the technological alternatives are from being commercially viable. Too many governments are dithering over implementing decisive measures now, for fear of alienating their voters and turning away their financial backers and the vested interests whose present privileged positions depend entirely on business as usual.

Far better to hold out the carrot to the electorate of a solution to the climate crisis by 2050, 2060 or 2070 and let following generations deal with the fallout from today’s shambles.

And it is a shambles.

Even the IEA admits as much, calling for “a complete transformation of how we power our daily lives and the global economy” and highlighting the need for the world to move much faster. The organisation has concluded that, by 2035, advanced economies must reduce emissions by 80% and developing economies must cut theirs by 60% compared to 2022.

However, countries’ current declared policies and pledges fall well short of meeting this target and, for the moment, we are continuing to increase the amount of GHGs released every year.

The 2023 update of the IEA’s Net Zero Roadmap emphasises the critical need for international co-operation. “This needs to be a unified effort in which governments put tensions aside and find ways to work together on what is the defining challenge of our time.”

Unfortunately, even the most cursory of looks at the current geopolitical landscape will show that this is most unlikely to happen, given the level of international tension and the number of regional face-offs and potential flash points.

Furthermore, the actions of many governments call into question the strength of their commitment to taking the drastic and immediate action that is necessary to tackle the climate crisis.

The latest figures from the Global Energy Monitor show that the world added yet more coal-fired power capacity in 2023. Over three times as many new coal plant units were opened compared with the number of units shut down, with most new capacity introduced in China, Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Japan.

More evidence is detailed in the “Production Gap Report 2023”, produced jointly by Stockholm Environment Institute, Climate Analytics, E3G, the International Institute for Sustainable Development and UNEP. Contrary to declared climate promises, governments are planning to produce in aggregate around 110% more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting climate warming to 1.5°C. Their plans indicate increasing production of coal until 2030 and of oil and gas until 2050. The report also identifies ongoing policy and financial support for fossil fuel production from most of the 20 major fossil fuel producing countries surveyed.

Significant production increases are anticipated in the US, Russia, China, India, Australia, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Indonesia among others.

A further indication of ambivalence towards tackling climate change is the extent to which administrations are continuing to authorise new oil and gas exploration projects. The UK government, for instance, announced it will introduce legislation that will allow oil and gas companies to bid for new licences to drill for fossil fuels every year, while, in 2023, Norway offered an increased number of licences for further exploration activity on the Norwegian Continental Shelf (NCS).

These are just two examples. The IEA has demanded that, to meet the target of zero emissions by 2050, "beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development", but, as of mid-2023, 47 countries had announced plans for new oil and gas exploration.

Meanwhile, the US is producing oil at a faster rate than ever before, much of it destined for export to satisfy unrelenting international demand, even as the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act is providing massive amounts of funding for improving energy security and clean energy programmes.

Furthermore, in this year of elections all around the globe, politicians are seeking to bolster their public appeal by rolling back or emasculating green policy initiatives.

Last year, Germany pushed a proposal for stringent green home-heating rules way into the future and the British prime minister announced a weakening of net zero targets, including a five-year delay of a ban on the sale of new petrol cars, justifying his actions by saying, “we’re going to make progress towards net zero but we’re going to do that in a proportionate and pragmatic a way that doesn’t unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs in their lives.”

Right wing populist politicians everywhere, particularly in the rich western democracies, are playing up divisions of opinion over climate and climate action.

In Sweden, the incumbent coalition has cut fossil fuel taxes several times in the past year, in part because it depends on support from the populist Sweden Democrats, who want cheaper fuel, as do Swedish voters.

In Germany, the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is gaining ground in the polls, lambasting the energy policies of the ruling coalition, which, they say, will “impoverish” the country. Jumping on the bandwagon, some centre-right politicians have taken to condemning the Greens (who make up part of the ruling coalition) simply as a party which makes “laws that forbid things”.

Looking ahead, the ultimate populist, Donald Trump, threatens to throw an almighty spanner in the works, if he is re-elected to the US presidency in November. As in his first term, it is highly likely that he would withdraw from the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change. He would probably roll back any number of Biden-era initiatives around environmental measures and has even pledged to repeal Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and he would undoubtedly return to his mantra of “drill, baby, drill!”, supporting Big Oil at every turn in extracting and burning increasing amounts of coal, oil and gas at the expense of renewable sources of energy.

Analysis by Carbon Brief projects that Trump’s policies would increase US GHG emissions by 4bn tonnes between now and 2030, negating twice over all of the savings from deploying wind, solar and other clean technologies around the world over the past five years.

Without doubt this would mean the end of any faint chance humanity might still have of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C. It would also destroy any shred of credibility the US has as a responsible global citizen and international leader on climate change.

Of course, it may not happen…Biden may win.

In middle income Brazil, President Lula has at least moderated many of the catastrophic (at least in climate terms) policies of his predecessor, the wannabe-Trump, Jair Bolsonaro. However, he is supporting the state oil company Petrobras in its drive to increase production by 80%. Meanwhile, the Congress, which contains a majority of lawmakers from the agri-business caucus, has reined in the powers of Lula’s environment ministry, fearing green policies that will damage the livelihoods of the members the caucus represents.   

Outside of the rich world, policies on climate action are much less divisive, but no less controversial, because they often mean rises in the cost of living, an outcome which is completely unacceptable, given the high levels of poverty faced by so many. Subsidised fossil fuel is a vital component of everyday life, and governments dare not try to remove the subsidies, even though the finance is desperately needed in other areas, including investment in energy transition.

The plight of the developing world and the rich world’s response is central to progress towards zero emissions.

During COP28, discussion on climate finance was widespread, although decisions on concrete actions were not taken. A panel of African leaders told a press conference that financial support would be “essential” if they were to transition away from fossil fuels and developing countries repeatedly emphasised that they would need large amounts of money.

Currently, a small group of developed countries that includes the US, western Europe, Japan and other global north nations, is obliged under the UN system to provide US$100 billion annually until 2025 to help developing countries take climate action. These commitments were not met in 2020 or 2021 (but may have been in 2022). The reticence of the rich countries has inevitably created a general lack of trust between nations and unwillingness to follow the global north’s lead in climate action, especially as it is the industrialised economies of the global north that have historically been responsible for the damage done to the environment.

The IEA cautioned that “there is no low international co-operation route to limit warming to 1.5 °C and no slow route either” and yet that is precisely what we see – a world riven with disagreements and conflicts, where the rich global north pays scant attention to the poor global south, unless it can make a fast buck and short-term self-preservation dominates political thinking, at the expense of the collective long-term health of humanity as a whole.

Not many reasons to be cheerful here.

The scale of the climate crisis poses an existential threat to all of humanity and co-ordinated effort across all parts of society are needed – policymakers, the business world and the general population. In part 2, I will look at how business and commerce and the general public are reacting to the dangers we face.

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Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash     









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