How long have we got?

3 November 2022

How long have we got?

Paul Branch

Time in politics seems to be getting shorter, with Liz Truss having set a new world record for time in office.   Young Liz spent her secondary school years in Leeds, the site of an earlier very similar record, that of a football manager — Brian Clough lasted 44 days as manager of Leeds United back in 1974.  But time is also getting worryingly short to do something meaningful about climate change.  Whilst still Prime Minister, Liz advised the King that his presence at COP27 was not needed, and probably neither wanted nor appropriate, but intended going herself.  Rishi Sunak had declared he wouldn’t be going, with too full an agenda at home, and anyway, it’s not really a top political event — just a bunch of people talking about the weather.  Cue mass media hysteria about lack of leadership, lack of judgment, lack of understanding of the severity of the crisis facing the planet.  And maybe they’re right.  Perhaps climate change even trumps Bill Shankly’s claim that football is a much more serious matter than life and death.  

All of which seems to have galvanised Boris Johnson into some sort of action with the promise that he will attend COP27, claiming a particular interest in being there (quite in what capacity is undefined) and so he can talk up the fantastic success of the UK-led COP26 last year and to talk about how he sees things.  The UK committee on Climate Change has already said how it sees things here as a result of the Johnson-led endeavours – no clear strategies for hitting targets, no details on what technologies to use other than those that remain unproven, and a general tendency to backslide on commitments.     

The UN Secretary-General has also been throwing his oar in, suggesting that both our Prime Minister and King Charles would be invaluable attendees and influencers at the gathering in Sharm El-Sheikh next week, and by asserting it’s now or never for strong global agreements, firm commitments and concerted actions across the globe.  His cataclysmic description of impending catastrophe is backed up the latest UN scientific assessment which indicates there is now no credible way of keeping the rise in global temperatures below 1.5C, and that with the current policies and commitments of countries around the world the rise is more likely to be in the region of 2.8C this century.  With financial support and investment in clean energy to implement current plans instead of just talking about them, it’s possible the rise could be limited to 2.4C.  But at the rate we’re going there would be a mere 1% fall in global emissions by 2030, whereas a reduction of nearly 50% would be needed to achieve the 1.5C trajectory.  For my own wellbeing that doesn’t really do me a great deal of harm personally, but I’d much prefer to leave my grandchildren and beyond a world they can inhabit comfortably and peacefully.  And that looks unlikely to be the case.

The overall sobering impression within the UN Emissions Gap study team seems to be we’ve had our chance to put things right but we’ve frittered away the time and the opportunity.  Only a drastic change in our attitudes and a transformation of global economies and societies could reduce the onset of climate disaster, from a near certainty to pretty probable (where’s another U-turn when you really need one?).  Our government may still be trumpeting our climate change commitment and achievements, but another UK group, the committee of MPs and peers on National Security Strategy, says that, in practice and with a distinct lack of credible evidence to the contrary, there appear to be no Ministers with focused responsibility on ensuring our infrastructure is resilient against extreme weather impacts, where the overall effect will worsen if such impacts come together into a cascading crisis.  Such apparent lack of concern is epitomised by the delay in setting new targets to curb pollution and improve our green environment by 31 October, as required by law, and that the recently appointed Climate Minister, Graham Stuart, will no longer sit at the Cabinet table.   This does not bode well for the government’s planned review of our target to achieve net zero by 2050, especially if economic stability and energy affordability take precedence.

Despite the gloomy skies at home and abroad, there are a few strong positives.  In transport there is a definite and sustained transition to cleaner power:  nearly 50% of buses sold globally last year were electric, and in passenger cars there was a doubling of the previous year’s electric vehicles sales to almost 10% of new cars.  In energy, with increased impetus for transition caused by the war in Ukraine, there are a host of new policies emerging in the US, Far East and EU which will hopefully result in over $2 trillion invested in clean energy by 2030, which is more than double the size of today’s investment.

There’s also been a study at Oxford University extrapolating the costs of switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2050, which concludes that moving quickly to cleaner sources of energy is not as prohibitively expensive as has been claimed by fuel companies, climate change deniers and politicians alike.  Going green now seems to make economic sense because of the falling costs of renewables.  The study is based on historic price data and then modelling how prices are likely to change in the future.  Data for fossil fuels goes back more than 100 years and indicates that the price hasn’t changed much once you take out inflation and market volatility.  Granted these are both extreme factors today, but things tend to balance out when looked at in the context of a century’s worth of data.  Renewables on the other hand have only been around for 20-30 years to any significant extent, so there’s far less data.  However, in that time there has been continual and rapid technological development which has resulted in the costs of wind power and solar energy falling at a rate of about 10% a year.  Probabilistic modelling assuming massive investment and economies of scale as has occurred with technology in other areas (for example, telecommunications or transport) gives a somewhat surprising result:  the faster you go, the faster costs tumble, the more we will save.  With wind power and solar energy, big questions still remain as to how best to store power and how to balance the grid as the weather changes (eg, overcast and windless), but to offset these concerns there is the stimulus to investment and innovation arising from the absolute need to keep mankind going.

The bottom line, if these assumptions are even reasonably fulfilled?  ….. worldwide savings of $12 trillion by 2050, when we should be getting to net zero.  So the conclusion from the study is to give it all we’ve got with the transition to green energy, because not only will it save the planet but it also saves us a lot of money.  One more argument against those who say we can’t afford it – the reality is we can’t afford not to do it.  One more argument for politicians to prioritise climate change even above the cost of living and our other domestic failings.  And if you believe in that, write to your MP and get Charles rather than Boris on the plane to Egypt.   Thankfully Rishi’s last-minute Truss-like manoeuvre has saved the day for him at least.

tile photo:by Roxanne Desgagnés on Unsplash

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