Climate change is an existential threat and a great moral challenge. We have known this with confidence for decades:
- Scientists first discovered the ‘greenhouse effect’ in the 19th century;
- Scientific advisors warned the US President in 1965 that it “could be deleterious” for humans;
- By the 1980’s it had become a mainstream issue; and
- In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen told a US Senate Committee that there is clear evidence that the greenhouse effect “is changing our climate now”.
Despite the gravity of the situation, we have not made meaningful progress in combating climate change over the last 50 years – since 1970, global annual CO2 emissions have more than doubled, largely driven by population and economic growth. Global average temperatures have already increased by 1°C relative to pre-industrial levels.
Time is running out. The next decade will be decisive – if we don’t step up, our ability to mitigate climate change will permanently slip beyond our reach. Global CO2 emissions need to halve by 2030 (relative to 2010 levels) and then fall to net zero by 2050 if we are to limit warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. To put the enormity of the challenge in context, global emissions increased by 3% in 2018.
To have any chance of achieving the required reduction in emissions, we must first understand the reasons for our lack of progress to date. We can then rectify these weaknesses in our future strategy.
This article discusses:
- Our experience over the last half-century
- Drivers of our lack of progress to date
- The role of the Paris Agreement
- Prognosis of meeting the Paris objectives
- Is it time to declare a climate emergency?
- What can you do?
1. Our experience over the last half-century
While there have been some positives in the fight against climate change over the last 50 years, the chart below of annual global CO2 emissions is telling. By all logic, the line should have levelled off and started reducing after the 1980’s, when we became fully aware of the serious nature of climate change and how to mitigate it, but instead it has increased relentlessly.
Figure 1 – Historical global annual CO2 emissions 1900 to 2015
Global annual CO2 emissions have more than doubled since 1970. Granted, the global population also doubled over that period, which hasn’t helped (as discussed in a previous post), but regardless, we should have managed to significantly reduce per capita emissions by now. Figure 2 indicates otherwise.
Figure 2 – Historical CO2 emissions per person for selected countries/regions
There has only been a marginal reduction in per capita emissions in the EU and the USA since 1970. Further, we observe disparity amongst developing nations – in 2017, Australians and Americans emitted more than twice as much CO2 per person as their European counterparts.
Another key observation is that there has been a sharp increase for China and Japan, corresponding to their respective economic boom periods. Meanwhile, per capita emissions are slowly, but surely increasing in India as its economy grows.
These results demonstrate that we haven’t been able to significantly reduce per capita emissions nor break the link with economic growth. Until we achieve this, it is inevitable that emissions will rise as the global population and economy grow.
2. Drivers of our lack of progress to date
We have known about the significant threat that climate change poses for more than 50 years, but still we have failed take meaningful action. Taking an outside view, this seems irrational, reckless and out of step with how humanity usually deals with its problems. So, there must be a good reason for it.
Some would argue that climate change is just too complex and difficult to solve, that carbon is inextricably linked with our economy and lifestyles and so decarbonising is virtually impossible. But humanity has previously solved large complex issues countless times in history and people have shown a remarkable ability to sacrifice when called upon (e.g. during natural disasters and world wars), so that can’t be the full story.
Lobby groups and influential individuals with vested interests have no doubt played a huge part in hindering progress. But then again, although lobby groups are powerful, they have been overcome in the past – for example, the public health campaign against smoking has been relatively successful in overcoming lobby groups over time.
I believe that main reason we haven’t seen any meaningful progress is due to the long-term and abstract nature of the issue. The worst effects of climate change will not emerge for decades and the largest contributors and today’s leaders will not suffer proportionate consequences – it is the children of today and the poorest nations who will bear the greatest burden. The BoE Governor, Mark Carney, called this dilemma the “tragedy of horizon” in a speech at Lloyd’s of London on the financial risks of climate change.
Humans are not naturally well equipped to deal with abstract problems with such long horizons. We are hard-wired to respond to immediate threats – say, is that a tiger in those bushes? – and to prepare for short-term relatively predictable events, like surviving the winter.
To give an illustration, if an alien leader and its army landed on Earth, clicked its fingers and instantly wiped out half of all animals, then there would be a massive call to arms and we would destroy the threat or die trying. Yet, in the real world, as we have gone about our daily lives, we have unwittingly and gradually wiped out more than half of the population of wild animals since 1970, a fact that has largely been greeted with apathy or in some cases mild alarm, before scrolling on to a cat video.
That doesn’t mean we can’t ever solve climate change. We do not operate solely on instincts and we are able to control our animal urges after all. Indeed, a defining trait of humanity is the ability to contemplate our own existence.
We are therefore perfectly capable of considering and responding to longer term threats to our existence, such as climate change. It is just that doing so is more difficult and requires a deeper level of thinking and planning.
We already apply this type of long-term thinking throughout our lives, for example, when we save for retirement, when we buy life insurance and when we control our expenditure so that we can afford to pay off a 30-year mortgage. The same structure can be applied to mitigating climate change.
For this type of thinking to be successful, however, it requires the following at a minimum:
- A clear understanding of the problem or objective – e.g. I need a 30-year mortgage in order to buy this house;
- A realistic and measurable pathway to achieving it, so we can control our short-term behaviour – e.g. I need to pay £X each month for the next 30 years.
- Clear consequences of straying from the pathway – e.g. if I fall behind in my mortgage repayments, the bank will foreclose my property.
In terms of mitigating climate change, we have reason to be both hopeful and fearful. Hopeful, because we already have all of the tools and information to support the requirements above – we have extensive research and a framework for global co-operation. Fearful, because collectively we do not seem to clearly understand all three requirements and have not fully committed to them.
3. The role of the Paris Agreement
The Paris Agreement is the single most important framework that we have for mitigating climate change.
At the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC in Paris on 21 December 2015, 196 state parties agreed to a long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2°C relative to pre-industrial times and to limit the increase to 1.5 °C. The agreement has since been widely referred to as the Paris Agreement.
The target of 1.5°C was explicitly referenced, as it is the upper limit of warming of what climate scientists consider to be “safe”. The risks of going even 0.5 degrees beyond this are significant – at 2°C, it is extremely likely that we will lose our warm-water coral reefs forever along with other sensitive and threatened ecosystems (e.g. in the artic region).
Aside from setting a clear direction, the long-term goal of the agreement sends a signal to financial markets, so that the emissions reduction pathway can be factored in when making investment decisions. This is important to facilitate the transition to a low carbon economy in an orderly manner.
Under the Paris Agreement, each country must determine their own reduction targets, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), that are in line with achieving the wider objective of the Agreement.
The Paris Agreement is far from perfect, however, and does not guarantee success. Major criticisms include:
- Signatories have too much autonomy in setting their NDCs;
- There is no enforcement mechanism; and
- NDCs are non-binding under international law.
To continue with the previous mortgage example, it is a bit like a bank telling the borrower to set their own repayment plan, not checking if the proposed pre-payments are sufficient and then not taking any action if the borrower misses their repayments. While that sounds wonderful from a borrower’s perspective, it is not viable and would cause the bank and possibly the wider economy to collapse.
In a similar vein, the fundamental flaws of the Paris Agreement leave it susceptible to rent-seeking behaviour and hence reduce the likelihood of success.
If we compare the Paris Agreement against the three requirements to solve a problem with a long horizon discussed in the previous section, it does not perform well.
In summary, while the Paris Agreement is an important step and is the best shot that we have at mitigating climate change, it has fundamental flaws and so it is by no means certain that it will achieve its objectives. This means that significant efforts are still required to ensure that the world remains on track to reducing emissions.
4. Prognosis of meeting the Paris objectives
In order to limit the increase in global average temperatures to 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement objective, global CO2 emissions need to almost halve by 2030 (relative to 2010 levels) and reach net zero by 2050. This assumes an ‘orderly transition’ pathway, which minimises the cost of decarbonising the economy as well as avoiding the high future costs associated with the physical impacts of climate change.
Based on the experience and commitments to date, the prognosis of meeting the Paris Agreement objectives is not good. The world is currently heading towards warming of more than 3°C and that’s if countries meet their targets and do not withdraw from the agreement. The difference between 1.5°C and 3°C may not sound like much, particularly given the daily fluctuations in temperatures we experience, but the outcomes are worlds apart (see figure 5).
This result probably does not come as a surprise given our historical lack of progress with reducing CO2 emissions and the limitations of the Paris Agreement discussed previously. There are three key areas of concern:
- The pledges/NDCs are not strong enough – the combined NDCs translate to more than 3°C warming by 2100, as shown in the chart below.
- Most countries are not even on track to meet the low bar – Only 6 of the G20 nations, which together account for c80% of global emissions, are on track to meet their NDC targets: Brazil, China, Japan, India, Russia and Turkey.
- The USA has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement – Donald Trump withdrew the USA, which is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, from the Paris Agreement in 2017. It is conceivable that other nations could withdraw following changes in political tides.
Figure 3 – Gap between current targets and the required emissions reduction pathway
While the progress to date has been poor, there is still hope – signatories are due to review and update their NDCs next year. If there is enough pressure and momentum, then nations are likely to strengthen their targets to be more consistent with the required emissions reduction trajectory.
There some encouraging signs. For example, the independent adviser to the UK government on climate change (the CCC) recently recommended that the UK adopts a legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050. If the recommendation is adopted, the country that unleashed the problem of climate change on the world through the industrial revolution, will be one of the first major emitters to stop contributing to it, which has an almost poetic symmetry.
France, Sweden, Denmark, the wider EU and the state of California have also proposed (though not agreed) a target of net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, while New Zealand is currently considering a similar target.
The IPCC also explored scenarios where it takes longer for global emissions to peak – it calls these ‘overshoot’ scenarios. Under these scenarios, it is still theoretically possible to limit warming to 1.5°C, but these place large reliance on as yet unproven methods to generate large negative emissions after 2050. So, in a way, they just kick the can down the road for the next generation to deal with and rely on a technological breakthrough. Figure 4 below shows a range of scenarios.
Figure 4 – Pathways consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C warming
In conclusion, although there is still hope, the situation is grave. At this point, the most likely outcome is that the world is heading towards more than 3°C warming by 2100. We effectively only have a decade to get GHG emissions under control if we are to limit warming to 1.5°C – even the longest overshoot scenarios shown in Figure 4 require emissions to peak before 2030. If we don’t drastically change course within the next decade, a 1.5°C world will slip beyond reach. Considering the scale of the challenge and the relatively long lead time to finance and implement new technology, it will be the fight of our lives.
5. Is it time to declare a climate emergency?
When a long-term plan looks set to fail, one effective strategy is to declare a crisis, which makes the problem more immediate and hence naturally easier to respond to.
Some groups would argue that declaring a climate crisis is exactly what we need. Extinction Rebellion, a climate activist group, ran a 10-day campaign of organised civil disobedience over April in London. Their demands are: (i) to declare a climate emergency and communicate the urgency of change; (ii) to halt biodiversity loss and reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025; and (iii) to create a citizens’ assembly that effectively gives control of the issue to an independent body thus making it apolitical.
The media paints Extinction Rebellion as an extreme group, but their core demands certainly don’t seem that way, except perhaps for their proposed emissions reduction trajectory, which is steeper than the IPCC 1.5°C pathway.
Elsewhere, Greta Thunberg, a schoolgirl from Sweden, inspired students across the globe to strike to demand action on climate change. In a speech to UK members of parliament (MPs), Greta passionately explained the disproportionate effect that climate change will have on her generation and the need to declare a climate crisis.
Following these events, UK parliament approved a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency. However, the motion does not legally oblige the government to act and is hence largely symbolic.
Declaring a global climate emergency could give the issue the urgency it needs to put stronger, binding and consistent targets in place to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement. Sure, there is a risk that this will be seen as alarmist, but the risk of continued inaction through apathy is arguably higher at this point.
The table below highlights some of the physical effects of climate change under different warming scenarios and is a stark reminder of what is at stake. The next decade will determine what future world Greta and her generation will live in.
Figure 5 – Effects of different warming scenarios
An orderly transition to a 1.5°C is the best-case outcome, for the planet, our wellbeing and the economy – we must do all we can to achieve it.
To maintain the status-quo and continue on a 3°C or higher trajectory would be to knowingly inflict millions of additional deaths, more frequent natural disasters and crippling costs on the poorest nations and future generations, which to me, seems morally repugnant.
6. What can you do?
If you’d like to make sure we get back on track to meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement, there is a lot you can do to help:
- Influence your political leaders and vote – it is essential that countries strengthen their pledges/NDCs in the next round and take greater accountability in meeting them. Leaders are elected by the people, so if you make climate change a top issue, then they’ll have to listen. If you are in the USA, then campaigning to re-join the Paris Agreement is the first priority.
- Consider ESG criteria for your investments (this is not financial advice) – money talks; a redirection of investments from fossil fuel projects to renewables would go a long way to supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy. If this issue is important to you and/or if you are concerned about the viability of carbon-intense business models in a Paris Agreement world, then consider your various investments (e.g. your pension or superannuation). Most providers offer various investment options that impose minimum environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria and/or only invest in companies that have Paris Agreement compliant business models. Consider speaking to a financial adviser before making any decisions.
- Reduce your impact – the actions of one person can quickly grow into a movement that changes the world. Setting your own emissions reduction plan will contribute to the solution. I will write articles on this topic in future.
 Joseph Fourier discovered the existence of the greenhouse effect in 1824. The argument was strengthened by Claude Pouillet in 1827 and further evidence was provided by Eunice Newton Foote in 1856.
 “Climate Science, 50 Years Later”, American Association for the Advancement of Science, October 2015
 Climate change reached the front page of the New York Times on August 22, 1981. “Study finds warming trend that could raise sea levels”.
 “Scientists say greenhouse effect is kicking in”, Washington Post, June 24, 1988
 “Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions”, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC)
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 “CO2 Emissions Reached an All-Time High in 2018”, Scientific American, 6 December 2018.
 “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision” (2017) UN Population Division
 Mark Carney “ Breaking the tragedy of the horizon – climate change and financial stability” Speech by Mr Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England and Chairman of the Financial Stability Board, at Lloyd’s of London, London, 29 September 2015
 “WWF Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher” (2018) Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds).
 “Global Warming of 1.5°C – An IPCC Special Report” IPCC, 2018.
 Article 3 of the Paris Agreement
 Article 14 of the Paris Agreement
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 “Emissions Gap Report 2018”, United Nations Environment Programme
 “Trump Will Withdraw U.S. From Paris Climate Agreement”, The New York Times, 1 June 2017
 “Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming”, Committee on Climate Change, May 2019
 “Extinction Rebellion: London climate protest” BBC News, 24 April 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-48044056
 “Global Climate Strike: Meet the teenagers skipping school to fight for a greener planet”, CNN, 15 March 2019
 “’You did not act in time’: Greta Thunberg’s full speech to MPs”, The Guardian, 23 April 2019
 “UK Parliament declares climate change emergency”, BBC News, 1 May 2019