December 23, 2020
Not only about life in general, but specifically about humanity tackling the climate-nature crisis in time?
Guest writer Charles Secrett is a former Director of Friends of the Earth. He is currently working as a strategy advisor and political campaigner for The Climate and Ecological Emergency Alliance in the UK.
Jonathon and I have known each other for nearly 40 years. His latest book, ‘Hope in Hell: A Decade to Confront the Climate Emergency’, mirrors the author and campaigner: honest and straight-talking, very engaging, expertly researched and powerfully argued. And, as the title indicates, basically optimistic.
He and I pretty much agree on most things; particularly about what’s going wrong in the world, who’s to blame, and how to put things right. But where the Venn of our personalities slips a little is over the question of time.
Is there enough time to reverse the political, social and economic forces hell bent on destroying nature and wrecking the climate? Or will civilisation fall, as its ecological foundations – the magnificent diversity, wondrous beauty and extraordinary productivity of the biosphere and wild species, alongside a stable climate and basically moderate weather systems – disintegrate before obvious solutions become mainstream?
There are certainly reasons to be optimistic. Trump has gone (thank the Lord, and sufficient sensible voters), and Biden is assembling a crack Presidential climate response team and set to lever the US back into the Paris Agreement. China has pledged to become a Net Zero economy by 2060. The EU and countries like the UK are tightening up their interim (usually 2030) emission reduction plans, aiming to become Net Zero by 2050.
The global finance sector, and the big development and private sector banks, are finally waking up to their climate and nature responsibilities and slowly refusing to lend for coal and other fossil fuel power plants. Manufacturers and retail chains, from the fashion sector to foods, and from cars, planes and ships to cement, farming and forestry, are pledging to reform, buying renewables and developing the circular economy.
All well and good? Not quite. This year has seen unprecedented heat waves and fire-storms raging across western North America, Amazonia and the Pantanal (basically a wetland, for god’s sake), Siberia and Australia. The Arctic icecap, Greenland’s massive ice sheets and glaciers the world over are melting furiously. Across the boreal zone, perma-frost is warming and record levels of previously frozen methane are escaping into the air.
Coal is still king in Australia, China, India, Indonesia and Russia. Bolsonaro is still President and the Amazon rainforest being cut so quickly that it is on course to become savannah, releasing catastrophic amounts of methane from decaying vegetation alongside innumerable species extinctions.
Nature is being destroyed by humans as never before. WWF estimates populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have fallen by 2/3rds on average in fewer than 50 years. Farming and deforestation are two causes. Chinese, Asian, European and Russian fleets over-fish as if there is no tomorrow. A million species (some 500,000 animals and plants, and 500,000 insects) are threatened with extinction.
Losses on this scale have previously only occurred over millions of years. As forests, wetlands and peat bogs are felled, drained and dug up, and soils degraded and oceans warm, so the Earth’s carbon sinks weaken and their capacity to absorb excess carbon is lost – fuelling further climate heating.
Let’s remind ourselves how close we are to the edge. The Stockholm Resilience Centre has identified nine critical planetary boundaries related to key Earth-system processes and outcomes.
Humanity is transgressing four of these thresholds, i.e. those related to climate change, biodiversity loss, land use change, and biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen). Breaking past one or more of these limits increases the risk of catastrophic Earth system shifts at the continental to global scale.
The planetary boundaries lie at the intersection of the green and yellow zones. Processes for which global-level boundaries cannot yet be quantified are represented by grey wedges; and include, worryingly, the whole system functional role of biosphere integrity. In other words, current climate system disruption and destruction of natural systems is nearing Earth system collapse (see, Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet)
Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity have already raised global temperatures by 1.07oºC since pre-industrial times. Worryingly, it now appears that global carbon emissions may have warmed Earth by 18 per cent more than previously thought, raising the prospect of the world having less time than expected to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and avoid catastrophic climate change. This worsening echoes our previous experience of government consistently under-estimating the seriousness of the climate-nature crisis and necessary responses.
Governments have less time to curb carbon emissions to hold the temperature rise to 1.5oºC (or even significantly under 2oºC), and current estimates of future warming and associated adverse impacts are likely to rise as a result.
This is the basis of the Paris Agreement, and the IPCC’s 2018 revised ‘safe’ temperature assessment. The fair distribution of the available safe global carbon budget between nations is determined according to criteria established by the Convention.
The Convention mandates that all countries should determine their fair share allocation of the global carbon budget according to their “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”. These include having regard to their relative technological and financial capacity, specific development needs, responsibility for historical and current emission loads, and intergenerational and international equity considerations. Meeting ecosystem needs, including for diversity, productivity and stability, are also critical goals.
These criteria help nations determine their relative ‘safe’ emission allocations. Currently, nations are revising their allocations and emission plans – i.e. Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – for reconciliation with the globally available carbon budget in time for the next Conference of the Parties, in November 2021.
Previous NDCs have made unrealistic assumptions about emission trajectories, sink capacity and technological roll-out. According to The New Climate Institute, currently “no large emitter has yet submitted a substantially updated NDC, and the emissions gap is huge. Short term targets are not a little bit off, they are totally off. Near-term action and policies need to be ramped up considerably”.
There are three critical climate-nature mission goals for any robust national Paris-compliant emission plans.
The first is to ensure that average atmospheric temperatures do not rise above a safe level (i.e. have manageable consequences in terms of disruptive change). The second is to fairly distribute the available global carbon budget, and proportionate emission loads, between nations so that this safe temperature level is not exceeded. The third is to meet these two goals in ways which preserve a healthy, productive, stable and self-sustaining biosphere, and component ecosystems and species populations.
The most important targets for policymakers are: how much of the safe and available global carbon budget remains; and, how much and how fast is each nation using or exceeding its available fair share.
These measurements determine whether the 1.5oºC limit will be breached or not; and, whether individual nations are managing their carbon budgets sufficiently well or not. They are the yardsticks to assess whether nations will fulfil their Convention responsibilities and Paris obligations.
By the end of 2021, we will have a good idea whether humanity is on course to reverse these trends, stay within the safe 1.5oºC target, and commit to protecting and restoring critical planetary ecosystems.
At the end of May, nations will gather in Kunming, in China, for the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. In November, the 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention will be held in Glasgow, in Scotland. Both summits represent the best chance of transforming our relationship with nature and stabilising the climate.
If the national action plans that emerge are not strong enough, then, in the words of Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, on 2nd December, humanity’s “suicidal war” on the natural world will continue unabated and she will strike back with “gathering force and fury”.
The irony is that we know what needs to be done. We have the money, the technology, the imagination and the solutions to hand. The only thing so far missing is the political will to force the development U-turn.
Jonathon and I have campaigned for nature conservation, social justice and economy well-being all our working lives. The golden truth we’ve learnt is always judge politicians by their deeds, not their words. If we want those summits to end well, it will be up to people – voters – to insist that their leaders deliver.
Hope mostly lies with the growing swell of campaigns, nationally and globally, to do just that. Greta Thunburg is the most notable inspiration from thousands of others. And, here is one example from the UK on how to effectively hold politicians’ feet to the electoral fire – and a model to adapt in every nation in the run up to COPs 15 and 26 (https://www.ceebill.uk).
So, am I a pessimist or an optimist? Well, I’m not sure. What I do know is that I wake up an optimist but go to bed a pessimist. The secret is to keep waking up – and get stuck in. That way one sleeps a lot better.
* Post written by guest writer Charles Secrett, a former Director of Friends of the Earth. He is currently working as a strategy advisor and political campaigner for The Climate and Ecological Emergency Alliance in the UK.
Author : Kaj Embren