Special Issue 7 – Is this the final red light?

This article has been written for us by Ian Myers, ex-Chairman of Quantock Eco and currently a key member of its Executive.  He is a Senior Technical Advisor at the Environment Agency’s Head Office specialising Water Quality and Environmental Management.  He has always been closely connected with Humanity’s relationship with the Planet, having graduated from North London University with BA (Hons) in Human Geography, followed by the Diploma of the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management. 

Is this the final red light?

We are days away from the United Nations Climate Change talks (COP26) in Glasgow.  Many think this could be last chance to save our futures and they may well be right but regardless…it’s still a chance.

As we approach COP26 some nations have updated their commitments to reduce emissions.  This is necessary because all the previous promises made after the Paris agreement in 2015 would have been almost certain to deliver 3-degree temperature rise.  Remember we need to aim for 1.5 -degrees – and also remember even a 1.5-degree world isn’t pretty at all.

Yet, even as we make plans for Glasgow, investments and emissions from fossil fuels continue to grow – any lull from Covid is over as we accelerate off again in the wrong direction towards ‘the final red light’.  However right now the option to take an alternative road becomes increasingly obvious and what’s more the lights are green.  Many voices are shouting for a rapid change in direction to move away from business as usual.  We are however at a critical point and it’s time to get real – individually, locally, nationally, internationally because climate change now more than ever threatens our very existence on this planet.

The first things to note is that the world climate as observed by us humans is slow-moving beast.  It has to be noted that we’ve had a lovely stable atmosphere for 12,000 years and before that, although it was pretty cold, it was still perfectly survivable for humankind.  The second point it that it’s been millions of years since there was this much carbon in the atmosphere.  Really worrying is that most of it has been put there in the last 30 years. How or why did we get into this perilous state?

There are real solutions but there’s also real urgency.  A big fat warning came from the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) and it really is a wakeup call – so please wake up and do it now!

The evidence is stark, the scientists are screaming and the world needs to start listening.  We approach or have already arrived at key tipping points for humanity and our type of planet.  Covid and it’s impacts still ravage our world but climate change eats Covid for breakfast.  Of course, I know you’ve heard it all before, it’s hard to change, we’ve enough to worry about, we think it might not affect us, let’s just have fun, etc.  Right now changing direction and adapting is our only real option and it’s probably easier to do than carrying on as usual. Back to that IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report – this is the big one, all the others were relatively hopefully even mild.  The IPCC state we need rapid and deep Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emission reductions to happen over the coming two decades which will take a monumental effort.  Every current emission scenario’s that they assessed estimated that warming would likely reach 1.5°C by 2040 – that’s the best we can now hope for.  That’s a hot world happening very fast very soon even if maximum emissions are achieved as soon as practical. So – we all better get cracking.

COP26 therefore is seen as our last chance to limit warming.  So, this is a big event – follow the politics – all the powers are there and nearly all are fully engaged – there’ll be winners and losers’ whatever path is taken although unless we all change all could be lost.  Politicians understand their legacy and that our future depends on what they decide.  Everyone watching knows that and there’s hope they’ll do the right thing.  Whatever they decide though we need more than just hope, we now need action and everyone has to play their part and will be impacted whether they act or not.

Even the corporate world understands this now.  Fairly recently more than 50 global investors, managing over $14trillion in assets met to call for better standards to improve net zero accountability.  When asset managers start to take notice, it means that climate change risks and opportunities have firmly landed in the middle of our economy – where’s your money right now?  Pension funds around the world also feel ‘the heat’ and many have faced pressure to set out how and when they will reach ‘net-zero’.  Some rush to offsetting markets to meet these new aspirations or to seek sanctuary from the emerging risks and responsibilities we now face.

There’s increasing scrutiny now on voluntary carbon markets to deliver the levels of mitigation and sequestration actually needed.  Delivering might be a real challenge and isn’t cost free.  Oxfam have raised concern that an over-reliance on nature-based offsetting could impact on global food security.  Meanwhile the biomass, natural or artificial burns in the recent wildfires raging across several continents in America, Europe, Australia and Asia. 

In conclusion our economy is now seen to be at severe risk from climate change impacts and there’s certainly no good money to be found taking the same old path – there are just costs and plenty of them.  Offsetting and nature-based solutions are certainly helpful but they are not an adequate safety net.  We…that’s me, you, everybody, now need to change direction, asap, this is serious.

Pressure is certainly growing on the fossil fuel corporate world and it’s coming from all directions especially governments.  Shell Oil recently confirmed plans it would appeal a Dutch court ruling that ordered the energy major to set stronger targets to reduce emissions.  Regardless of the appeal outcome, the battle has begun.  In a recent pre- COP 26 conference President- Designate Alok Sharma declared there was a common understanding that COP26 had to keep world temperatures rises below 1.5- degrees.  In the same week however the G20 nations failed to reach a unanimous consensus to phase out coal – Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, Turkey and India were the exceptions.  It’s easy to understand why but it’s also obvious in which countries some of the solutions need to come from – follow the politics and the oil money.  Where do you buy your stuff from anyway and where does all the money end up?  Time for a change?  Remember this is serious now.

In the UK we’ve had quite a few policy announcements as well as significant net zero commitments – the hydrogen strategy for one – sounds promising although we need action and deliverables very fast.  Following Brexit, there’s the domestic emissions trading scheme (ETS) coming soon.  It [UK ETS] will need to be compatible with the EU one because even as we tore ourselves away from Europe, we didn’t entirely abandon all our commitments on climate and the prospects of an EU carbon border tax means alignment is necessary anyway.  The EU border tax alongside a functioning ETS could be a really effective mechanism to drive emission reductions and protect clean business.  

It’s not enough on its’ own though and all and other means now need to be utilised.  The UK also a new Heat and Building strategy that shows some promise.  Let’s not forget either that in the UK the proportion of fossil fuels in the energy mix reached an all-time low in 2020, and although at a unique time, the contribution from renewables also reached a new peak at 43%.

We are changing direction, there are solutions, we just need to do a lot more.  Let’s not forget either that further afield Biden offers some hope that the USA might start to move in the right direction after years of delay under a Trump presidency.  The EU continues to demonstrate leadership. Many governments and people around the world are indeed changing direction.

As we watch and wait for world governments to crank into action, we also know the evidence of climate change is all around – the weather is changing, and as humans we observe this happening with record temperatures, rainfall and snow events and droughts as dramatic weather events are repeated with increasing frequency across the world.  In Europe the shocking storms in Germany and Belgium serve as a warning of the risks we face even in the UK.  The heatwave dome across North America killed over 500 people but also an estimated 1 billion organisms.  

We have to adapt regardless of the outcome of COP26, but we are experiencing these impacts at a 1.2 – degree world.  Do you live in a flood plain, where does your food, power and water come from – and where does stuff come from and your waste go to?  Climate change is sure to impact us all and change our lives – it’s coming whatever we do.

Humans have pumped around 2,400bn tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since 1850, creating concentrations of the gas that have not been seen on Earth since two million years ago.  Our species hadn’t even evolved then.  What have we changed our planet for – flying for sun or driving for fun, gorging on food, hellbent on consuming all manner of products and things?  Our lifestyles were unimaginable even 50 years when we first started on this crazy journey.  We simply have to change path – it will end in ruin. 

Prof Dave Reay, executive director of Edinburgh University’s Climate Change Institute, having read the latest IPCC report put it like this “This is not just another scientific report. This is hell and high water writ large.”

We need a society wide vision like a national plan ranging from transport to power generation and from home heating to farming.  If we do that, we will be better off and we can cut emissions – we can adapt.  There’s no place for extracting more oil from the north sea Cambo field or a new coal mine in Cumbria.  In the UK we can’t claim we’ve done our share and reduced our emissions – we have really just exported them.  Remember also we have caused this problem – we now need to help other countries to adapt and that includes helping financially.

Another UK commentator, Nick Starkey, director of policy at the Royal Academy of Engineering, pointed out. “The UK is not on track to meet existing carbon targets and our goal of 78% emissions reduction by 2035 will not be reached without deep energy efficiency measures,”.  Ok that’s actually sounds like it could be good – we might be able to save some money and stop emissions.  

It seems crazy that a bunch of people have to glue themselves to the M25 to get some attention about insulating homes as millions face substantial energy cost rises.  How much money do we need to fix problem compared to what we have paid, for example, to airlines to furlough staff?  Airlines are only profitable because they don’t pay tax on fuel at the same rate as householders.  It’s not just energy either – our record on transport is appalling – just £3B could make bus fares free for all – ask yourself how come we don’t do this?

Even the newspaper headlines are a changing. Following the IPCC report The Daily Express declared “PM: wake up to red alert to climate crisis,” with the Telegraph echoing “UN warns of climate ‘reality check’’.  The Mail is asking questions like “As doomsday report warns of apocalyptic climate change: can UK lead world back from the brink?” – it’s a tough gig is COP26 but someone’s got to do it – BoJo might be tempted and may pull it off although it’s worth remembering it really is a long term endeavour – is he the right guy?

It remains to be seen just how long our Prime Minister or any of us remain committed to addressing this threat but we really have to.  The newspapers had the issue all over the front pages on a Tuesday but had forgotten it by Friday.  And yet, this is the most important thing that humanity needs to do in the next 10-30 years.  It is going to change our lives so let’s not hang on to our old polluting ways any longer.

So, we all now need to act.  There is no time left.

If we don’t all take individual measures along with government, business and public bodies immediately then the consequences are clear.  So now just get with it – campaign and challenge and change – give up meat and dairy, stop driving everywhere, forgo that foreign holiday that involves flying, change your energy provider, change your bank, change your pension and investments – do it now or as soon as you can and convince others to do the same.  The earth cannot take this destruction any more.  This is not something that can wait – we have already waited and wasted time and there is none left – we really are in an emergency.  Do it for a better world, do it for you, your children and the future.

Don’t listen to the doubters or even your doubting inner voice –the world scientists have issued a “code red” warning for our species.  It’s like a doctor telling you that you are going to die if you don’t take your pills, but much, much more serious.

Fossil fuels of course have transformed our world into a better place for millions of people.  However, our relatively new lifestyles have also trapped our thinking and habits. We need to understand that the continued use of fossil fuels threatens our very existence.  Using fossil fuels today is destroying our tomorrow, and whatever happens we are still going to want to survive.

In conclusion whatever the outcome in Glasgow don’t jump that red light, it’s now time to brake hard and stop.  Take stock and find a new the road to survival – it’s indicated by a green light and there really is no other viable way.

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