By Nick Lyth
I read this news with a certain amount of hope, mixed with concern. Hope, because the event will take place prior to COP28, and might enhance the chances of success in the United Arab Emirates. Concern, because the reason for the additional summit is the failure of nations to implement anything close to the targets set in Paris in 2015, now more than seven years ago.
I want now to explore the extent of our failure to implement the Paris targets, especially as it has been such a continual touchstone for those who believe that COP21 in Paris showed how our international cooperation is being effective. It clearly is not. But what can we do to improve it?
So I googled UN Climate Change Conference 2023, and stumbled upon a page called UN Climate Events. I expected a short list, COP27, of course, COP15 on Biodiversity in Montreal, maybe one or two unknown to me. Instead, I found a list that is hard to credit. In the last six months of 2022, there have not been many weeks when there was not a UN international climate change conference of one kind or another. This is what I found:
UN Climate Related Events, July-December 2022
Nine separate events, spread over 48 days, or 7 weeks, out of a total of 26 weeks. The UN has devoted more than a quarter of the time available in the second half of 2022 to discussions and meetings concerning climate change.
Why, then, are we achieving so little? Let me return to my original question concerning the extent of our failure since Paris, and – crucially – what can we do about it?
The extent of our failure is dramatic, and calls into question why anyone was pleased with the outcome of Paris in the first place. There is a good site called Climate Action Tracker which I can recommend to your attention. Here is a screenshot which gives you the simplest possible illustration:
National Performances against Paris Targets to restrict warming to 1.5
Restricting warming to 1.5℃ before 2030
In other words, not a single country is currently addressing the problem in a manner that is consistent with the agreements made in Paris as to the requirement for restricting warming to 1.5℃. Is it any wonder that 1.5℃ is now a certainty, and quite possibly it will be reached before 2030? The question now is whether we can restrict our warming effect to 2℃, or not?
The latest Synthesis Report published on 26th October 2022 on the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC’s) under the Paris Agreement, prepared for the UN, which “synthesises information from the 166 latest available nationally determined contributions communicated by 193 Parties to the Paris Agreement and recorded in the registry of nationally determined contributions as at 23 September 2022” is pessimistic, and with good reason. As the above chart shows, not one of the 38 most significant parties is doing enough to comply with the 1.5℃ target. All are falling short, many are falling chronically short.
In aggregating the figures, The Synthesis Report shows that there is an “urgent need for either a significant increase in the level of ambition of NDCs between now and 2030, or a significant overachievement of the latest NDCs, or a combination of both, in order to attain the cost-effective emission levels suggested in many of the scenarios considered by the IPCC. If emissions are not reduced by 2030, they will need to be substantially reduced thereafter to compensate for the slow start on the path to net zero emissions. The latest IPCC scenario data set does not contain scenarios of still reaching the goal of 1.5 °C with low or limited overshoot after 2030 if emission levels are kept in line with those based on implementation of the current NDCs up until 2030.”
The problem now is that peak emissions, which had been predicted for 2028 or even 2027, are now not expected to be reached until after 2030. The chilling implications of this are spelt out in this report: “The best estimate of peak temperature in the twenty-first century (projected mostly for 2100 when temperature continues to rise) is in the range of 2.1–2.9 °C depending on the underlying assumptions. Without implementation of any conditional elements of NDCs, the best estimate of temperature change is 2.5–2.9 °C warming. Assuming full implementation of NDCs, including all conditional elements, the best estimate for peak global mean temperature is 2.1–2.4 °C.” But we already know that “full implementation of NDCs, including all conditional elements,” is no more than a pipe dream.
I need not remind you of the consequences of temperature rise approaching 3 degrees. They will be apocalyptic.
It is this report which has triggered the announcement of the special additional UN Conference next September, and you can see why. We are dealing with an inevitability, in which the new normal has now been recognised. Even a body as traditional as The National Trust in the UK has issued a statement describing the “exceptional” weather conditions experienced in the UK in 2022 as “the new normal”. Its annual review cites high temperatures, drought, back to back storms, and wildfires. It fails to mention floods, but those too can be expected on a regular basis unknown previously in the UK. The Met Office believes 2022 to have been the hottest year on record in the UK.
Where to focus our energy
The extent of our failure to deal with a problem that we have watched coming for so long is considerable. What then can we do about it? Three simple things need all our energy, time and resource:
- Concentrate on carbon and other GHG emissions, and carbon removal, nothing else matters. Many issues held to be important today, such as biodiversity loss, famine, homelessness, food or energy security are largely (though not exclusively) caused by climate change and require climate change to be corrected before they can be properly resolved. To treat them as separate problems is to ignore their root causes. But even if they were to be entirely isolated from Climate Change, their significance for our future becomes meaningless when compared with the reality we are facing with Climate Change. The management of carbon now will determine whether human life on the planet is sustainable or not. The price of getting it wrong will be the end of our collective lives. And getting it wrong is exactly what we are still doing.
- We now need white hot heat in the acceleration of technology innovation. Our global society and economy cannot adapt quickly enough to a different lifestyle, indeed our biologies cannot adapt. We have standard basic requirements we will continue to need for the continuation of life. Food, water, sanitation, transport, energy, industry, economic life, education, health provision and so on are the staples of our modern world without which much falls apart. The way we have provided ourselves with these in the course of the last century or more has done much to cause the problem of climate change. And climate change threatens our ongoing ability to access these resources. For example, food will not grow under unpredictable weather patterns, water resources are already becoming scarce with drought, mosquito carried diseases will spread further with increases in temperature and rainfall, and future pandemics will threaten the provision of health for everyone. Technological innovation is required at a massive scale to allow life to continue to access the resources we require without destroying our world.
- Protection. We talk a lot about “Adaptation”, meaning that we need to adapt our circumstances to withstand the hostile effects of climate change. “Protection” is a much better word. When we talk about climate adaptation we are not talking about biological changes, we are talking about infrastructural, technological, and behavioural changes. We must protect ourselves and others, once again using technological innovation to allow us all to continue to live the lives we require without being swept away by the changes in our environmental circumstances.
To those who say we cannot afford this kind of focus, consider this. These three ground rules are enough to keep our economy and business lives hyper-active for the foreseeable future. We will require full employment, investment, profitability within all the activities these goals will generate. This is economic activity and prosperity on the same scale as the Industrial Revolution, but this time it’s global, and it’s also got to happen within decades rather than centuries. Financially, it will provide the global economy with the money it needs to prosper and grow.
Consider this too. There is no alternative. All other plans for growth and prosperity will founder if the explosive nature of climate change is not addressed and corrected.