The third of SAMI’s Drivers of Change is the climate crisis. Over the years since we first put this on our lists, we have seen the issues become more and more central to public debate. In March this year, 85% of the UK population were fairly or very concerned about climate change.
Since we last wrote about the climate crisis in June this year, there has been plenty more evidence that climate change is happening:
- According the UN, drought frequency and duration has increased by nearly a third since 2000.
- The average temperature northeast of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has increased by more than five degrees Celsius in the last 20 years.
- Irreversible declines in freshwater storage are projected in parts of Asia by 2060
- The summer heatwaves in Europe, caused evacuations and heat-related deaths. The highest temperature recorded was 47.0 °C in Portugal; temperatures exceeded 40°C in the UK for the first time.
Tipping points, positive feedback loops potentially starting irreversible runaway growth – add complexity to the analysis. Research published in the journal Science suggests that 5 tipping points may have been reached at the current state of global warming of 1.1°C. These include the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice shelves, tropical coral reef die-off, Northern permafrost abrupt thaw, and collapse of the Labrador sea current. A further 8 tipping points are at risk with temperature rise in the range of 1.5°C to 2°C.
Biodiversity is collapsing. The accelerating loss of species around the globe is now referred to as the sixth mass extinction. It is driven by an unprecedented loss of vital ecosystems such as forests and wetlands, the result of social and economic systems that are focused on constant growth. The latest UN Biodiversity Conference, COP15, the second session of which is due to take place in October 2022, aims to implement ambitious measures for stemming biodiversity loss.
Progress to meet Net-Zero commitments to limit the average temperature increase to less than 1.5°C has been mixed, at best. On the plus side:
- The US Government was successful in passing its “Inflation Reduction Act” that authorises $369 billion spending on energy and climate change and brings the U.S. significantly closer to the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.
- China has consistently over-performed on its renewable energy targets.
- In Australia – previously a laggard due to its coal industry – the new Government voted to make emissions reduction a key national energy goal, in a major step forward in the clean energy transition.
- In the UK, the High Court said government’s net-zero strategy, which sets out plans to decarbonise the economy, is in breach of the law, because it doesn’t explain how targets will be met. We mark this as a positive because setting targets is of no use if there are no paths to get there.
However, others are lagging behind:
- India will miss its renewable energy target for the end of the year
- No new, more ambitious2030 climate targets have been announced and participation in sectoral initiatives has stalled since COP26 in Glasgow. This goes against the clear agreement of the Glasgow Pact to update national 2030 climate targets in 2022.
- Climate Action Tracker calls Russia and South Korea’s polices “highly insufficient,” and Iran comes in as “critically insufficient.”
International co-operation is not going well. The Bonn climate conference was not successful, ending in acrimony between rich and poor countries over cash for climate damage. Developed countries refused to pay for the damage caused by climate change, as well as who should make further cuts to their emissions in the coming decade. Vulnerable countries fought to raise the issue of adaptation on the agenda, to help them better prepare for rising temperatures. Richer countries were accused of “carbon colonialism” for not accepting the effects of their past behaviour. COP27 in Egypt this November looks likely to be mainly an argument about climate damage financing, rather than generating new commitments to reduce emissions.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine complicates things further. On the one hand the massive increase in oil and gas prices means we are seeing urgent plans to reduce energy consumption by both governments and individual households. A push towards greater use of renewables would seem to be an obvious response. However, politicians are leaning towards older approaches, to approving fracking and more oilfield development, which because of their 10-year development horizons will build in carbon emissions for many years to come.
Technology can help. Solar is the cheapest form of energy in most places. Advances in battery technologyare leading to ways of smoothing out the intermittent nature of wind and solar power generation. Hydrogen (especially wind-turbine powered hydrogen) is increasingly seen as a way forward with new gigafactories, an EU strategy, German support and experiments in Formula 1.
Implications of the climate crisis are many and varied. The already visible effects show that consequences are “baked in” (sorry for the unfortunate pun). Regardless of how well national and international Net Zero plans are implemented, the world will continue to see an increase in extreme weather events. Many countries are unprepared for the impacts, with a possibility of food insecurity, energy shortages, climate-based migration and civil unrest.
Climate driven migration could be huge: nearly 10% of the population of Bangladesh are expected to have left the country by 2050; by 2020 1.7 million people in the US were displaced by extreme conditions, fire, storms and flooding; globally, over one billion people are at threat of being displaced by 2050. In Wales, a coastal community is being abandoned to the sea, as the local council decides it can no longer defend it.
Insurance premiums will rise dramatically, and many properties will become uninsurable.
We are seeing some positive signs of behaviour change, but more will be needed. 73% of people in the UK believe the climate is changing as a result of human activity. While many are prepared to move to electric vehicles the appeal of heat pumps and veganism is much less.
If Net Zero policies are implemented fully, there are serious impacts on the fossil fuel industry. The International Energy Agency’s “pathway” to net-zero implies fossil fuel resources become stranded assets. Seven top firms downgraded their assets by $87bn in 9 months and reduced payments to shareholders. BP reckon 2020 was “peak oil”. Burning the world’s proven reserves of fossil fuels would emit 3.5tn tons of greenhouse gas emissions, more than have occurred since the industrial revolution, easily exceeding that limits needed to keep warming to 1.5°C.
On the other hand, insulating homes in Britain and installing heat pumps could benefit the economy by £7bn a year.
The more we have studied climate change in the context of our futures practice, the more obvious it is that it will affect everything in the near to medium term future – and, if we get it wrong, for the long term as well. The time has clearly passed, as opinion surveys indicate that people in the West at least believe, for considering climate change as someone else’s problem.
The energy crisis imposed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the supply chain problems after the pandemic, and an impending recession, are all obstacles to addressing global warming. Particularly, they are causing exactly the opposite reaction to what the world needs. By focussing on the use of fossil fuels to compensate for the loss, especially, of Russian gas and oil, Western countries are missing out on the clear opportunities of the transition to a green economy. There are enormous productivity, technological and financial gains to be made if the investment in climate technologies is pursued with real, concentrated effort. All of our work has shown that investment in green technology, rather than investment in soon to be stranded assets, brings rewards in employment, skills, technology development and in secure financial returns.
It is therefore clear that governments, commercial organisations and households all need to be acting to move to Net Zero and to adapt to inevitable climate-led challenges. They can do it now, in a planned and thoughtful way – or they will have to do it later.
Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
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