We are, truly, in a Climate Emergency. As outlined throughout this book, unless bold action is taken in the next 3-5 years to change the economic system, we may well be facing a long-drawn out equivalent of the sudden extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago – and certainly the worst set of circumstances since The Flood in Noah’s Time. There are real problems ahead: fire; flooding and loss of entire cities; drought; hundreds of millions of migrants; ocean acidification; increased disease; significant food shortages; and, inevitably, some wars as a result.
None of us of course can predict the future, and the last chapter is only an attempt at scenario-building. But the IPCC 2018 Report makes it clear that the world must target a temperature increase above that of 1900 to no more than 2C – and even better 1.5C. If we fail, the future looks very bleak indeed.
To achieve this, the bold action required is needed now and, as the Drawdown Report emphasises, this must be done on multiple fronts. As an economist and capitalist, I cannot foresee how the world will forgo economic growth and so, by way of a compromise, a 2-2.5% p.a. increase in world GDP is factored into the Kaya Equations I presented in Chapter 5. What matters pivotally of course is what kind of growth we are talking about, and here too, the Drawdown Report is full of ideas. Critically though, we must:
· End Coal Production this decade. Coal is by far the biggest contributor to Climate Change and the Number 1 pollutant. Yet there are significantly more new coal plants currently planned for South East Asia despite India just having cancelled its programme. Coal is so bad that it use should no longer be regarded as contributing to economic growth in a sustainable way.
· End Deforestation and begin Reforestation. The destruction of the Amazon Rainforest and Indonesian peatlands cannot be allowed to continue. But by the same token, everywhere action is needed – including in the West. Countries such as Rwanda and Ethiopia have led the way in showing that large scale reforestation programmes are possible.
· Accelerate the transition to electric vehicles and the accompanying clean-up of the energy generation base away from fossil fuels and towards renewables or nuclear energy.
· Slow down the conversion to gas which has now served its purpose and is now a force that increases fossil fuel use and carbon emissions
· Reduce (note: not stop) beef consumption. This is a major factor in methane emissions – also a contributor to global warming.
There remains, however, a direct trade-off between increased technology (including efficiency gains) and population. I am not advocating a general reduction in population size (other than by natural disasters) but clearly population growth must be addressed in the coming 3 decades. As the Drawdown report emphasises, family planning and educating girls will go a long way to achieving this. Better managed population sizes will actually bring many benefits to the health of a country’s economy and its citizens. Equally, the solution to global warming is not just about controlling population. Technology will play a major role, as will land management practices. And behavioural change is key – being climate friendly should stop being a burden.
So far, the focus has been on national responses although these are unlikely to work as they will mean higher compromises in developed countries, which already have higher carbon footprints. A global problem demands a global solution and, once national efforts to reduce carbon emissions have been exhausted fully, we must become more innovative about funding projects in less industrialized countries. Many of the solutions in the Drawdown report involve changing land practices, which will need initial starter capital so financial support, technology transfer and capacity building at scale are required urgently.
This is in direct conflict with the Paris Agreement which places the onus on national governments to identify specific targets – yet targets which have no enforcement machinery. As experience in the UK shows, an approximate 40% cut in carbon emissions has been made in the past 30 years by relatively easy measures and ‘offshoring’ emissions to the developed world by, for example, importing final goods from China. It will prove to be much more difficult to reach the next 60% reduction by 2050 assuming a target of net-zero by 2050 is kept. It will cost money – but that money should be viewed as an investment in our futures.
Without doubt, greater energy sector investment is required. The International Energy Agency (IEA), for example, has estimated that $1trn is needed annually until 2050 in comparison with the 2015 total of $331m. This investment in renewable energy should be accompanied by both eliminating market-distorting fossil fuel subsidies and introducing carbon pricing. The latter is not without its own problems. Firstly, if applied just to the UK for example, it would place industries at a severe economic disadvantage. A border carbon tax would, therefore, be required but this would be a protectionist move and, post-Brexit, would run counter to global free trading. For it to work, major countries around the world would also need to apply carbon pricing; an external tariff. This could be done, for example, by establishing a common economic zone of carbon taxing countries.
There is a strong role for governments to play. I am not a great believer in governmental intervention in markets but it is clear that, in the transition to clean energy, strong national climate policy frameworks are needed, institutional, regulatory and legal. In the UK the Climate Change Act of 2008 is a good example although it is now being tested into the 2020s as options to decarbonize become less apparent (except of course for a system overhaul). We like to think that the rich West will always have the upper hand due to its economic and military might. Hence, there is a need to seek Western-led global solutions, and in a time frame that will reduce carbon emissions early. But if so, why work to an arbitrary deadline of 2050? If the case has been made that the sooner action is taken the better, why not aim for 2030? Could this be achieved?
The summer of 2018 demonstrably showed that Climate Change is now affecting nearly every corner of the globe, with record heatwaves throughout the world. This evidence continued this year, 2019. We can no longer afford to wait before taking action. The time to act is NOW!