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There’s still time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Can we pull it off? Hazel Healy makes the case for conditional optimism.
In 14 March 2019, Cyclone Idai made landfall in Mozambique. It came in as people slept, at a wind speed of close to 200 kilometres per hour; by morning, 90 per cent of the major port city of Beira was destroyed. A video posted by an eyewitness showed a desolate scene, as bodies were recovered from a Catholic church to the sound of keening that is hard to listen to. ‘People didn’t stand a chance here,’ he mutters.
Idai was supercharged by warmed seas and heavy rains brought by climate change. It was a stark reminder of what is to come, or rather, what is already here, and the intense vulnerability of those least equipped to deal with it – on a continent that accounts for just four per cent of global emissions.
More tragedies like this one – and much worse besides – are not yet inevitable. It’s true, we’ve known this was coming for at least 30 years and have done nothing to stop it. But that story is starting to change. As the climate breaks down, disruption is shifting calculi in the realms of science, politics and economics. Alongside this, new visions are defining how we go about preserving a viable ecosystem for our children, and the best route to get there.
The shift begins with science, which has described our apocalyptic end with terrifying precision – and given us a deadline.
Last February, Joeri Rogelj, a bearded Danish climate scientist, stood in front of a graphic at a public lecture in the Oxford Martin School. It showed temperature anomalies since 1850, blooming like a flower of doom throwing out ever more red petals until the present day.
He’s one of 91 authors who contributed to last October’s game-changing report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which contrasts the impacts of a 1.5° and 2°C warmed world.
The report delivered a bleak message, described in The New Yorker as ‘a collective scream sieved through the stern, strained language of bureaucratese’. We have hit 1°C above pre-industrial times sooner than we thought, mostly due to feedback loops in the Earth’s complex carbon cycle; on our current trajectory, we may hit 1.5°C as early as 2030. At this point up to 90 per cent of coral reefs die out, heatwaves and wildfires plague the planet every year and floods, drought and disease propel several hundred million more people into food insecurity as yields, animals and fish stocks fall. As the temperature marches on past 2°C, it gets notably worse.
The brunt of these changes is likely to kick in within 20 years and the consequences will persist for centuries. Past 3°C it becomes apocalyptic: vast swathes of the earth rendered uninhabitable by heat, coastal cities and islands submerged by the sea.
Rogelj co-ordinated the mitigation or ‘carbon-cutting’ section of the report, which models scenarios to avoid such an outcome. The central concept here is the ‘carbon budget’, which is a calculation of the amount of remaining emissions we can afford to pump into the atmosphere before locking ourselves into ever higher temperatures. We say ‘locking’ because carbon – which makes up 80 per cent of greenhouse gases – accumulates in the atmosphere, beyond what nature can absorb. So even if we stopped burning oil, coal and gas today, temperatures will stay constant.
Rogelj frames the challenge as ‘extremely hard, but not impossible’. The timescale is tight; to have a decent chance of halting warming at 1.5°C, CO2 emissions must peak in 2020, drop by half within the next 11 years and plummet to ‘net-zero’ by 2050.
Anything less, leaves our future – and that of future generations – hanging on finding ways to suck out billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere and bury it underground via unproven technologies such as carbon capture.
The finite budget is science’s gift to the rest of us: an incontrovertible, exhaustive, consensus-based concept that is understandable ‘even to policymakers’ and takes away governments’ ‘wiggle room’. It establishes that any delay now means deeper cuts later. And by setting a limit, it allows you to imagine possible ways to get there.
If the remaining carbon budget were split equitably among the world’s nations it would amount to a 10-20 per cent drop in carbon emissions year-on-year for industrialized countries, according to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
To give us a flavour of what we should try for, Climate and Energy Professor Kevin Anderson calculates that in Britain this would translate into a 75-per-cent cut in emissions by 2025 and a fully decarbonized energy system by 2040. Countries outside the OECD – club of rich nations – would have a little longer but it would still need to happen within the next 15 years.
We already know what won’t work. After 28 years of climate negotiations that Anderson categorizes as an ‘abject failure’, solutions such as carbon-trading schemes, carbon off-setting, and subsidizing less-polluting coal-fired power stations have proved to be false. They produce the kind of cognitive dissonance that allows the UK to open a new deep-sea oil platform while positioning itself as a climate leader.
And for all the increased ambition as cities and regions – and business – set zero-carbon targets, overall, they have failed to make a dent. Of the 185 signatories to the 2015 Paris Agreement – the non-binding international climate treaty that committed countries to keep the global average temperature rise to below 2°C, and strive for the safer limit of 1.5°C – almost no-one is on track. The fossil-fuel industry has outmaneuvered scientists and civil society – emissions from shipping and aviation are omitted from the Paris targets altogether. ‘I don’t know who’s responsible for them,’ Anderson speculates. ‘It must be God.’
This reality illustrates that incremental change will not cut it. With the budget we have left, paradigm shifts in economics, politics and society are needed – what activists are calling ‘system change’. Deep cuts to fossil fuel use will come primarily via a rapid transformation of our energy systems. We will need simultaneously to scale back demand via cuts and efficiency drives, ramp up renewables (currently just 10 per cent of the energy mix) through an industrial-scale construction drive on the scale of the post-World World Two Marshall Plan, and retrofit buildings like crazy. As electricity is the only sustainable zero-carbon power source, we must electrify heat and transport as fast as we can. Land and urban infrastructure must also undergo dramatic transformations.
But rather than slowing down, we’re speeding up. CO2 emissions rose last year and are predicted to rise again in 2019. At this rate, we’ll burn through Rogelj’s painstakingly calculated ‘budget’ within 10-15 years.
‘If you follow the charts of our current trajectory, you’ll be pessimistic and defeatist – you won’t be able to solve it,’ climate reporter Diego Arguedas Ortiz tells me on the telephone from Costa Rica. ‘So we use the back-casting model – set our best goal and look at how we get back to the present.’
Costa Rica is one developing nation that is breaking ranks with the squabbling, carbon-hooked North. In terms of pollution, it may be small fry – emitting just 1.8 tonnes of CO2 per person (compared to 17 tonnes per Australian and 16 tonnes in the US). But its policies offer a microcosm of what a genuine transition might look like.
In February 2019, this tiny but ambitious Central American country launched a sector-by-sector plan to go carbon neutral by 2050 – meaning it will emit only what its forests can absorb. By virtue of geography and a history of championing the environment, Costa Rica already sources nearly 100 per cent of its electricity from renewables – mostly hydropower, wind and some geothermal energy from volcanos. But fossil fuel use is growing as it relies on oil imports for fuel. So, its decarbonization plan focuses on transport, the source of 40 per cent of its emissions.
Much action hinges around modernizing public transport: building an electric trainline to connect the capital San José, electrifying 70 per cent of its buses by 2035, and halving its ageing fleet of petrol cars in urban areas. RECOPE, the state-owned company that imports and refines fuel, is researching alternatives such as hydrogen, along with how to move fossil fuel workers into clean energy jobs. A ban on fossil fuel exploration has been extended to 2050.
Ortiz has crunched the numbers and says the plan – worked up over eight months – is achievable. ‘There’s money to do this – right now we’re spending $1.2 billion importing oil every year.’ But it will face hurdles. Costa Rica is no paradise – no matter how beautiful its beaches – and has a fragile, liberalized economy and vested interests like anywhere else. ‘As policies go into motion, clashes will happen,’ says Ortiz. Success will rely on society-wide backing from companies, mayors and the Transport Ministry.
But if it goes to plan, the Environment Minister Carlos Manuel Rodriguez says by 2035 his grandchildren will have the same footprint as their grandparents in the 1940s and by 2050, none at all.
‘It’s a gateway to a different world,’ says Ortiz. ‘If you break it into smaller bits, it’s easier to imagine, which I think is the real challenge: it’s impossible to achieve what you cannot imagine.’
It takes vision to think beyond fossil fuels. But when it comes to de-carbonization we don’t need to dream up how to power down; there are already criminally easy-to-adopt strategies available to the big polluters. (See a technical blueprint.)
US energy analyst Hal Harvey has a gift for making it sound easy. His strategy is to influence the ‘decisionmakers that can cut the most tonnes of carbon the fastest,’ he tells climate journalist David Roberts on Vox.com. He has worked up a toolkit of 10 low-carbon policies for the top 20 most polluting countries, who churn out 80 per cent of greenhouse gases. These are the things that are already working, what Roberts calls ‘the least-sexy parts of climate change’ such as performance standards, setting minimum kilometres per gallon per car, and minimum energy standards for building codes.
Let’s take a no-brainer: the 2015 EU legislation to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a powerful greenhouse gas used in air conditioners and fridges, which makes up 1 per cent of global emissions now, but would rise to 20 per cent by 2050 if unchecked. Another: setting fractions of renewables on the grid. The states of California and New York have ruled that all utilities must source electricity from fully de-carbonized sources by 2050.
You can also apply Harvey’s principle of ‘biggest cuts fastest’ to individual energy users. Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel have shown how emissions correlate tightly to wealth – the 10 per cent of richest people are responsible for 45 per cent of the world’s CO2. If you took these profligate emitters and reduced their carbon footprint to the level of the average European, you could cut global emissions by a third.
Done together, at speed, these shifts would deliver a zero-carbon energy system. Policy doesn’t happen in a vacuum, of course. There’s a reason that car fuel-efficiency standards went to sleep in the US for 25 years: sustained lobbying by oil refineries. But the message is crystal clear: we don’t have to wait for a scientific breakthrough, or carbon-absorbing techno-fix, like adding alkali to clouds or nitrogen to the sea. We have the technology – don’t delay, just do it now.
As the West tries to wean itself off carbon, a clean transition looks very different in countries where dirty development has yet to deliver affordable energy. ‘Everyone’s looking for huge, centralized systems, quick results,’ South African climate activist and historian Yvette Abrahams tells me on the telephone from her smallholding on the edge of Cape Town. ‘But it’s not always the best way to mobilize people; solutions also have to speak to people’s lives.’
Abrahams spent three years working with communities across South Africa – low-income, squatter camps, remote rural places – with Project90 for 2050, an NGO that mobilizes for a low-carbon future. By her second workshop, she says, a shop owner had bought a solar panel and people were charging off it. ‘This is people reclaiming the means of production, it’s about tapping into working-class energy – without policy support and back-up,’ she says.
A middle-income country with a highly polluting coal industry, transition plans in South Africa focus on divestment campaigns that target huge institutions. Abrahams wants to see this money reinvested in decentralized clean alternatives, such as ‘solar mini-grids’ for the 15 per cent of South Africans without power. (The Paris Agreement already requires the Global North to support low-income countries to leap-frog dirty development pathways with ‘climate finance’ to the tune of $100 billion per year by 2020, but they are falling short – Oxfam calculated flows were as low as $16-21 billion in 2015 and 2016.)
For her, the simpler the technology, the better. She sees great potential in ‘bio-gas’ (the ‘little step-sister of renewable energy’), a way to turn sewage into energy by farming microbes that produce methane, which can be burned for electricity. She’s been running her own biodigester in her back garden for eight years. ‘It comes from the world’s most renewable source!’ she laughs. ‘But it’s not toys for boys, not sexy. It won’t employ engineers and you can’t steal from it. So, it probably won’t take off’.
Coupled with a consciousness-raising campaign in the style of the fight against apartheid, she thinks renewables can take off. ‘If people have power over technology they can see how it works for them – that insulation keeps their kids warm and saves them money – they will adopt it,’ she says. ‘Middle-class people with their bellies full can tell someone they face extinction in a couple of decades. But a decade can be hard to imagine,’ she says. ‘In South Africa, 49 per cent of people are food insecure, seven million have HIV. They are thinking –how do I feed my hungry child?’ Unless the ‘zero-carbon transition’ brings immediate benefits to the majority, no-one will be on the streets fighting for system change.
But affordable energy alone won’t be enough. Abrahams believes any transition will also hinge on drawing on the resilient indigenous knowledge systems, which have survived ‘slavery, apartheid, then neoliberalism’ to date, without ever threatening to destabilize the planet. An increasing number of studies suggest that this idea – long put forward by Global South movements – is gaining currency. In particular, agro-ecology and traditional farming methods, which nurture biodiversity, prioritize nutrition and land rights, are obvious successors to extractive profit-driven farming, which currently accounts for 20 per cent of greenhouse gases (mostly methane and nitrous oxide).
Vaishali Patil a grassroots leader from Maharashtra state in Western India, says economics lies at the heart of the problem. ‘Climate change is bound up with our development paradigm – it flows from that,’ she says. In the Western Ghats mountain range she works alongside tribal peoples who are resisting all encroaching mega-projects, which range from coal-fired power stations and dams to nuclear power plants. ‘How can you go for these huge damaging projects when clean is an option?’ she asks. All pose an equal risk to the land, sea and rivers that people rely on for survival. It’s a timely reminder to be on guard against any solutions to climate change that come at the risk of wrecking yet another fragile, threatened ecosystem and its custodians.
The call from the Western Ghats for clean energy is being strengthened by downward pressure on technology prices. In India, the plummeting cost of production means that clean energy is not only the least polluting, it’s also the cheapest. The price of solar and wind energy, and the lithium-ion batteries used to store it, is coming down a massive cost curve. Just 10 years ago, it cost $400 per megawatt hour to generate solar, now it’s $30.
‘If renewables carry on at this rate,’ explains Kingsmill Bond from British thinktank Carbon Tracker, ‘within four years they will make up 100 per cent of the growth market. Mathematically, that means they are going to push fossil fuels out of the system.’
Bond – a financial analyst who has worked his whole career in energy markets across Europe and Russia – believes companies and petro-states are underestimating the speed of a transition that he equates with that of horses to cars and canals to trains. ‘Just five years ago, it was all about do-gooders and Greens – now it’s just simple economics,’ he says.
Market mechanisms may be on our side, but time is not. Any transition to zero-carbon requires a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels. By Carbon Tracker’s calculations, we need to close one coal-fired power station every day until 2040 to achieve the Paris accord target.
Meanwhile, new coal-fired power stations – the most polluting fossil fuel – are still being built. By Bond’s calculations solar will be cost-competitive everywhere by the early 2020s but banks like HSBC will still finance coal projects while it’s marginally cheaper. Once built, fossil fuels are ‘locked in’ as they are likely to be run to the end of their lifespan.
Chinese companies and development banks are also aggressively promoting, financing and building a new generation of ‘young coal-fired plants’, primarily in Asia, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. China is ambivalent on the climate. No wrecker like the US, its private sector, aided by generous state subsidies, is behind the collapsing cost of renewables and ever-cheaper electric buses, but this innovation is mostly driven by private companies and is not its major export. Sam Geall, Executive Editor at chinadialogue.net, explains that the infrastructure plan to connect up Asia acts as an ‘escape valve’ for Chinese companies in a slowing economy, where choking smog has prompted air-quality regulations and the shutting down of coal plants. (Australia and the US are also seeking export markets as domestic controls squeeze coal out of their national grids.) Geall believes that only a co-ordinated pushback from southeast Asian countries will cause a rethink in Beijing. Movements on the ground will need to oppose every plant, using strategies that connect local concerns about pollution to the increasingly powerful divestment movement, which is applying moral pressure to all sources of finance.
As the clock ticks down, there are some nascent shifts in policy that foster hope. Tentative experiments such as a carbon tax in places such as British Columbia have yet to be set high enough to have an impact. But legislation to keep fossil fuels in the ground – long the headline demand of climate activists – is slowly permeating into policy, as Germany tightens its calendar for coal phase-out and New Zealand/Aotearoa announces an end to new permits for oil exploration.
In and of themselves, none of these measures cut deeply or quickly enough for the change we need, nor do they begin to touch the estimated $775 billion in fossil fuel subsidies. But academics Fergus Green and Richard Denniss believe the policies signal an important shift: the emergence of new ‘global norms’. These norms are starting to interact with the ways states perceive themselves in a similar way to past moral campaigns on slavery and apartheid. As the social legitimacy of post-carbon economics builds, they see a meaningful climate accord coming back within reach. When you consider Kingsmill Bond’s observation that four-fifths of people live in countries that import fossil fuels, a new geopolitical landscape in which countries start to bid for energy independence and break with the current consensus begins to enter the realms of possibility.
On 15 March 2019, the day after Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique, over a million students around the world walked out of school in protest against governments’ failure to tackle climate change.
In Oxford, the atmosphere was celebratory and sombre. Two boys weighed up whether to turn their Krispy Kreme doughnut box into a placard. One teenager’s sign predicted that her children will ‘die from climate change’.
Walking among the students I recognized scientists from the talk by Danish climate expert Rogelj. ‘It makes you feel like the work you’ve been doing over the years pays off,’ said a smiling Karsten Haustein, who studies extreme weather events. ‘The message is getting through.’
In our current political landscape, ideas move fast. The global school strikes movement has spread from the lone-protest of a single Swedish schoolgirl in August 2018 to over 2,200 cities and towns, in 128 countries. Alongside it, the Green New Deal (GND) movement has emerged in the US, catapulted into mainstream politics by Sunrise, another youth-led movement. Championed by 29-year-old socialist Democrat Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, its radical plan – to fully decarbonize the US economy while addressing social inequality and repairing the historic oppression of indigenous communities – has captured the public imagination and transformed the US climate debate. At the last count, 100 Democrats have agreed to co-sponsor the GND resolution, and 10 presidential runners back it.
Another brand-new movement, Extinction Rebellion, has also appeared since October 2018, blocking London bridges, targeting government ministries and firing up a new cadre of activists. Moving in step is the ‘climate emergency’ movement, which has spread from Australia, and works to hold local officials to their green pledges. They join the many thousands already pursuing direct action, lawsuits and climate advocacy around the world.
The desire to build a better society within Earth’s boundaries is reshaping politics. As different constituencies align and start pulling together, we can start to tell new stories about the future. This isn’t about looking on the bright side, it’s about seeing where opportunities lie and seizing them with both hands. We still have an outside chance: from where we stand, to fail would still be a choice. In 2050, we may yet look back and ask, ‘How did we do that?’
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