On Sunday, to mark the UN Climate Summit in New York, the World Meteorological Organisation published new data showing 2014-19 to be the warmest five-year-period on record at 1.1 Celsius above the average for 1850-1900 average. Here are some key findings:
“Arctic summer sea-ice extent has declined at a rate of approximately 12% per decade during 1979-2018. The four lowest values for winter sea-ice extent occurred between 2015 and 2019. Overall, the amount of ice lost annually from the Antarctic ice sheet increased at least six-fold between 1979 and 2017. Glacier mass loss for 2015-2019 is the highest for any five-year period on record.
“Levels of the main long-lived greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4)) and nitrous oxide (N2O) have reached new highs. In 2018, global CO2 concentration was 407.8 parts per million (ppm), 2.2 ppm higher than 2017. Carbon dioxide emissions grew 2% and reached a record high of 37 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2018. There is still no sign of a peak in global emissions, even though they are growing slower than the global economy.
“The last time Earth’s atmosphere contained 400 parts per million CO2 was about 3-5 million years ago, when global mean surface temperatures were 2-3°C warmer than today, ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica melted, parts of East Antarctica ice had retreated, all causing global see level rise of 10-20m compared with today.
“Despite extraordinary growth in renewable fuels over the past decade, the global energy system is still dominated by fossil fuel sources. The annual increase in global energy use is greater than the increase in renewable energy, meaning the fossil fuel use continues to grow.”
Current “Nationally Determined Contributions” – nation by nation government policy – mean emissions will peak in 2030, but the report says that nations must immediately triple their emission cuts to align with the 2C limit and quintuple their efforts to align with the preferred 1.5C limit.
The authors of the report conclude that, “A substantial part of the technical potential can be realized through scaling up and replicating existing, well-proven policies – such as switching to renewable energy and reforestation - that simultaneously contribute to key sustainable development goals.”
The UN Secretariat has announced it will play its part through a plan to halve its CO2 emissions by 2030. The UN Secretariat, headed by the secretary-general, is the largest entity within the UN system, with 44,000 international civil servants. Its ten-year Climate Action Plan aims to transform its operations to achieve the fall in greenhouse gas emissions through sourcing 80 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources. The global operations of the UN Secretariat represent approximately 58 percent of the reported greenhouse gas emissions from the entire UN system, according to a report of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Insert your own joke here about how much hot air emanates from the area around East 42nd Street and 1st Avenue.
Is the world getting serious about managing the effects of climate change on human lifestyle aspirations? Because, let’s face it, this isn’t really about polar bears or penguins, it’s about a world-wide aspiration to live healthily in an air-conditioned home, to move around in a family car, and to go on overseas vacations twice a year. Unless we curb such aspirations, we won’t as a species or a global polity meet the climate change goals.
For instance, those aspirations mean that global oil consumption has grown from about 85 Mn barrels per day (Mn bpd) ten years ago to 100 Mn bpd today. About 9 Mn bpd of that has come from China alone, with another 3 Mn bpd from India – hardly surprising given that these two countries represent a third of the global population.
Shipping is trying to do its bit. At London International Shipping Week a number of emission-reducing visons were presented. The new low-Sulphur fuel regulations, slow-steaming initiatives, research into alternative fuels and energy-saving hull forms and machinery all help. But the fundamental problem remains this: nobody has yet found a fuel that can be produced, distributed, stored and used as cheaply and efficiently as petroleum products.
The Take Away
One modest proposal would be to limit use of the world’s remaining hydrocarbons use for transport purposes, accepting the necessary evil that is transport and trade. Instead focus on cutting plastics production to limit oil use, and focus on cutting emissions from other activities, particularly heating and cooling of buildings and electricity production.
The alternative is to restrict trade and personal movement. That’s not just climate-conscious individuals choosing not to fly or to offset their flights with carbon credits, it’s mandatory slowing of the global economy through the imposition of travel restrictions on entire populations. It’s the imposition of climate tariffs on global trade.
Imagine this: if Donald Trump had said he was imposing import tariffs on goods from China for environmental reasons, he’d be carried shoulder-high into the UN today. Instead he and the Summit will shun one another because the US President puts US aspirations above the global trade system and above ecosystem preservation. He may be nearly the last to be able to do so.