The climate alarm could not have been much louder than the special report (SR15) that was released on Monday, October 8, 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). While the Paris Agreement presented the famous target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or well below 2.0 degrees, the special report shows that such a range may actually be political wishful thinking. The Special Report clearly shows that a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels will bring about severe changes compared to current extreme weather events.
Professing a diagnosis is easier than providing a solution, especially when you do not wish to ruffle feathers. Most scientists and laymen agree that although global warming has risen and abated in the past, what has happened since the industrial revolution is a vertical climb that shows no sign of reversion. It is also generally agreed that the catastrophic rise is largely systemic – caused by the exploitative economic system that the world is locked on. It is this rigged system that blocks the routes to the needed climate action.
Is it not known that the problem is about the continual burning of fossil fuels that stokes the atmosphere with greenhouse gases? Why is the world reluctant to stop the extraction and burning of fossil fuels even though these are known to be detrimental? The answer is simply that the powers-that-be prefer profit to people and the planet. So, business as usual continues and disaster brings even more profit through displacement of poor people and the grabbing of resources that the poor and the vulnerable are unable to access or return to.
The world will cringe at the dire prognosis of the report, and then go right ahead to dig up more coal, more crude oil and proceed with more fracking. Governments will still dig for coal and destroy forests in the process, despite loud alarms raised by forest protectors such as the ones at the Hambach Forest in Germany. And in Nigeria, the flaring of associated gas will continue and the dream of a superhighway through the last pristine forest will persist in Cross River State.
Happily, the appeal court at The Hague sided with Urgenda in the case against the Dutch government and declared that the government has a duty to take adequate climate action as a means of protecting the citizens from climate impacts and for securing the human rights. Interestingly the court also discounted the Dutch government’s argument that the carbon being pumped into the atmosphere today will be sucked out in future. We note that SR15 also acknowledges that the carbon-sucking technologies being bandied about are unproven.
The IPCC report diagnosed the problem and raised the alarm urging politicians and economic leaders to act. However, some of the suggested actions are equally alarming and will likely add more problems for the poor, the unprotected and the vulnerable, in the unfolding climate chaos.
We are told that the window for halting the chaotic climate march is a narrow 12 years. It is stated that by 2030, the global emissions of carbon dioxide must be cut by 45 percent from 2010 levels. It is also estimated that by 2050 renewables should provide 85 percent of global electricity.
So, what is to be done? When the IPCC says that action must be taken to ensure that the store of carbon in the atmosphere is brought to net zero, what is meant is that the amount of carbon released from excessive consumption and burning of fossil fuels and the like must be equal to the amount of carbon that is captured and stored somewhere, locked in sinks or deflected by some other means. These proposed actions, the hallmark of market environmentalism, are the real alarm bells that we should wake up to.
And, we cannot forget that about seven million square kilometres will be needed for so-called energy crops. That sounds nice, no? The more understandable names for those crops are biofuel and agrofuel crops. These are crops grown to feed machines or to provide biomass for some synthetic processes. An uptake of that massive size of land away from food crops will bring profit to industrial farmers; promote genetically engineered crops and attendant agrotoxics while raising global hunger and diverse social malaise. Also, more forests will be designated as carbon sinks with corresponding exclusion of communities from enjoying and managing their common heritage.
It is estimated that up to $2.4 trillion would have to be invested in energy systems in the next two decades to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is at a time that the world cannot raise $10 billion for Climate Finance.
Polluting and capturing and locking up pollutants in some carbon prisons, is not a new idea. It is a brilliant marketing spin. It allows business as usual, permits climate irresponsibility and delivers heavy cash to the polluters. For example, oil companies that use associated gas to literally scrape the bottom of oil wells will claim they are engaged in carbon capture and sequestration – even though they release the carbon in the first instance by drilling for oil. Companies engaged in geoengineering will don their beautiful badges as climate engineers and work to deploy an array of climate-interfering planetary experiments – including cloud whitening, solar mirrors in the sky, other forms of solar radiation management as well as ocean fertilisation. Yes, with net zero carbon targets we can keep cranking up global temperatures but hope that “we have the technologies” to handle the problems.
Humankind’s techno optimism gives policy makers that assurance and also that the oceans and genetically engineered trees can suck carbon from the atmosphere. It assures them that we can ape volcanoes and release particles into the sky that would block the sun and cool the earth. Suddenly it is as though our planetary systems are not interconnected and one part can be tweaked without a corresponding result elsewhere. But, who would really care if the negative impacts can be deflected on those destined for the slaughter?
Catastrophe is not inevitable if we can wake up from slumber and face reality. Life style changes and alternative investment patterns can no longer be delayed. Investment in socialised forms of renewable energy cannot be postponed. Fossil fuels must be seen as stranded or bad assets and left in the ground. Agroecological food production cools the planet, so investment and support must be extended to that and to small scale producers.
The cost of inaction or bad action is extreme. Temperature increases will make it impossible for certain crops, including maize, rice and wheat to be cultivated. Millions more will be hit by flooding. Sea level will rise, and coastal erosion will be more dramatic. With the suite of negative changes, the tide of climate refugees will rise.
The voluntary, nationally determined contribution of the Paris Agreement is clearly not the solution. It is time for nations to step up and accept legally binding emissions reduction based on historical and current carbon emissions. The alarm has been sounded. It is no more time to sleep.
By Nnimmo Bassey (Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation)