14 december 2020

[4C Note: In accordance with the Financial Times restrictions on reusing their material, we have copied only a small part of this excellent, if somewhat upbeat, article on recent progress toward confronting the global climate emergency. While the prospects of further, far-reaching commitments from China and the U.S. are cause for optimism, there has been far too little attention by sympathetic governments and the media to the life-style changes that will be indispensable to human survival in this and future centuries: reductions, for example, in individual consumption and expectations about air and car travel and meat consumption.]

Climate change: ‘the Paris goals are within reach’

*The rise in temperatures could be much less than previously feared if governments make good on recent commitments

*"The game-changer was China really moving into net zero, and that created a whole domino effect of others joining in,”

Leslie Hook in London, Financial Times, December 12 2020


In the years after the Paris accord came into force, global emissions ticked up to record levels. President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that he was withdrawing from the deal, and negative sentiments have also been expressed by Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, and Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison — though neither country has pulled out. Meanwhile, China declined until recently to set a carbon reduction target, saying only that it would peak emissions before

The co-operative ideals on which the pact was based were in short supply. “It felt like we had lost it for four years,” says Rémy Rioux, who was one of the lead French negotiators for the Paris accord, and is now the head of the French Development Agency. “The way we lived it for the last five years, was some sort of ‘resistance’,” he says, explaining that it had been a “fight” to keep up the ambition of the climate accord in the face of opposition from countries such as the US.

Recently that has all changed though. “Somehow the stars are aligning again. With the green new deal in Europe, with the election in the US, and with the Chinese pledge in September . . . We are probably entering a new phase, where multilateralism will regain momentum,” says Mr Rioux.

It is not only political winds that have shifted dramatically in the past three months: the world has also changed profoundly in the years since the Paris agreement was signed.

Clean energy is much cheaper than it was then, and the pace of the energy transition away from fossil fuels has taken many by surprise. The combination of technological progress, along with increasing knowledge about the damage caused by climate change, has helped to speed up that process.

In the past five years — since the Paris accord was signed — sales of electric vehicles have quadrupled, from 572,000 in 2015, to 2.3m in 2020, according to estimates from the International Energy Agency. Renewables accounted for 90 per cent of new installed power capacity this year, up from 50 per cent in 2015. Global demand for coal, which has been sinking since 2013, has plummeted this year during the coronavirus recession.

The IEA predicts that renewables will soon overtake coal as a source of electricity generation, largely due to the fall in the cost of wind and solar. “In 2025, renewables are set to become the largest source of electricity generation worldwide, ending coal’s five decades as the top power provider,” said IEA head Fatih Birol.

And putting a price on carbon pollution, once seen as a pipe dream, is becoming more common. Prices hit a record high last week for carbon pollution permits in the EU.

In addition to progress on clean energy, advancements in climate science in the last several years have also lent urgency to climate policies. The latest modelling suggests the earth has already warmed by about 1.2C compared with the pre-industrial era, and has a one-in-five chance of temporarily passing the 1.5C mark by 2024, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

One thing scientists have been able to observe is that carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere up to a century after it is released, which means the warming impact of past emissions continues for a long time.

“The climate system has a lot of inbuilt lags, so to some extent we have already determined what the temperature will be in 2030 and 2040,” says Prof Rapley. “There is a lot of reason to believe that, whatever you do in the next few years, the temperature is going to go past 1.5C in the next few decades.”

Pledges and policies

That is cause for concern, and one of the reasons why the next few years will be critical for determining the planet’s temperature trajectory. Despite all the recent announcements, there is still a yawning gap between countries’ 2050 targets, and the policies that they have put in place to cover the next several years.

The countries that signed the Paris accord have all committed, in theory, to submit new climate targets to the UN by the end of this year. Many of those targets were announced at the weekend’s climate summit — including the EU’s, which was agreed on Friday. But coronavirus has delayed many other announcements, and the UN has said it will keep the door open for further pledges that trickle in next year.

As those pledges arrive, the proof will be in their implementation. Prof Höhne says that if countries are measured on their current policies alone, ignoring their long-term goals, the temperature projection for the end of the century rises to around 2.9C.

Even the UK, which as host of the COP26 climate talks has set itself an ambitious target for 2030, has not yet spelt out the policies that will enable it to achieve such rapid emissions cuts. And in the US, President-elect Biden may struggle to get his $2tn climate plan approved by Congress.

“Some very exciting public announcements have been made, but we are not there yet,” says Inger Andersen, head of the UN Environment Programme. She points to a recent UNEP report, which outlines how — despite the lower emissions due to the disruptions from coronavirus — climate pledges are still not quite on track, particularly over the next decade. “If we land at 3C or 4C, Covid is just a little overture to what we will see [in terms of the impact on the world],” she says.

Meanwhile the planet will keep getting warmer, even as climate action speeds up. The natural disasters that marked 2020, from devastating wildfires in California, to heatwaves across Siberia, are likely to come again. And for all the fine words at the weekend’s summit, the youthful climate protesters have no intention of letting up the pressure on political leaders.

“The action needed is still nowhere in sight,” said Ms Thunberg in a video posted on Twitter ahead of the summit. In her view, the five years since the Paris agreement have been five years of empty words. The 17-year-old climate activist added: “Distant hypothetical targets are being set, and big speeches are being given. Yet, when it comes to the immediate action we need, we are still in a state of complete denial.”


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