A black hole of coal is swal­low­ing world­wide green good in­ten­tions

The Guardian - Journal - - News -

Out­side of the des­per­ate and the de­luded, ev­ery­one knows that the world is in the early stages of a truly cat­a­strophic cli­mate change. As Sir David At­ten­bor­ough told the UN cli­mate change con­fer­ence in Poland, “the col­lapse of our civil­i­sa­tions and the ex­tinc­tion of much of the nat­u­ral world is on the hori­zon”. We have even worked out, with scrupu­lous care, what we must do to avoid this or to mit­i­gate the ef­fects of cli­mate change. We know what to do. We can see how to do it. There’s only one prob­lem: we do al­most noth­ing.

Fig­ures re­leased yes­ter­day by the Univer­sity of East An­glia for the con­fer­ence in Ka­tow­ice show that global car­bon emis­sions will be higher than ever be­fore this year. In fact they will rise by nearly 3%, an as­ton­ish­ing and ter­ri­fy­ing an­nual fig­ure at a time when the need to di­min­ish them has never been more ur­gent. The main driver of this growth has been the in­creased use of coal, which is rapidly ap­proach­ing its pre­vi­ous peak level, from 2013. There is a par­tic­u­lar irony in that this con­fer­ence is be­ing held in Poland, a coun­try that still de­rives 80% of its elec­tric­ity from coal, even if this is less grossly pol­lut­ing than it was in the Com­mu­nist era. In fact emis­sions there are down 30% from their peak in 1988. But far more must be done. To limit global warm­ing to the Paris agree­ment goal of 1.5C, world­wide CO2 emis­sions would need to de­cline by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by around 2050.

All this de­struc­tive ac­tiv­ity far out­weighs the progress that has been made on the use of re­new­able re­sources. That is con­sid­er­able, but so long as re­new­ables are un­der­stood only as a pas­time for the rich, they will be wholly in­suf­fi­cient to meet the prob­lems be­fore us. The Paris goal of­ten looks like a drunk­ard’s res­o­lu­tion that ev­ery­thing will be dif­fer­ent as soon as to­mor­row comes. Ev­ery­thing has stayed much the same, and the bal­ance of ex­pert opin­ion is that three de­grees is now more likely than the tar­get fig­ure of half that.

It’s not just coal. China is now the big­gest emit­ter of car­bon, fol­lowed by the US and the EU as a whole, then In­dia, Rus­sia, and Ja­pan. Oil use con­tin­ues to grow. The world­wide de­mand for en­ergy is out­pac­ing ef­forts to deal its cli­mate-al­ter­ing side ef­fects. In a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally greedy and de­struc­tive way, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­poses to de­stroy one of the last great Arc­tic wildlife re­serves in or­der to drill for oil there. The great oil-pro­duc­ing na­tions of Saudi Ara­bia and Iran both fig­ure among the top 10 car­bon-emit­ting coun­tries de­spite hav­ing hardly any other com­po­nents to their economies. Add to this the ef­fects of de­for­esta­tion in the Ama­zon, which will ac­cel­er­ate un­der the Bol­sonaro govern­ment, and the fu­ture looks unimag­in­ably grim. Cli­mate change will ex­ac­er­bate, as it al­ready does, the world’s ex­ist­ing po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic di­vi­sions.

The most wor­ry­ing fea­ture of the lat­est UN re­port is the sug­ges­tion that the rel­a­tively good per­for­mance of the years 2014-16 in re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sions was the re­sult of an eco­nomic slow­down. The po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of the re­sult­ing dis­con­tent are with us still. They pro­duced Don­ald Trump and Jair Bol­sonaro and gravely weak­ened the EU. All those fac­tors make a sane pol­icy on cli­mate change less likely. The purely phys­i­cal feed­back loops that drive cli­mate change, such as the re­duc­tion of re­flec­tive ice sur­face, are now well enough un­der­stood. But it may be that the long-term mes­sage of the years since the Paris sum­mit is that this un­der­stand­ing is not enough. We must also learn some­how to dis­rupt the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic feed­back loops which are driv­ing our civil­i­sa­tion to the brink of catas­tro­phe.

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