Climate change in 2021: There is no turning back now

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In a quarter of a century of UN climate conferences tasked with saving humanity from itself, one has been deemed a chaotic failure (Copenhagen in 2009), another a success resounding (Paris in 2015) and the others landed somewhere in between.

This year’s COP26 elicited all of these reactions at once.

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, leading a 100,000-strong march through the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, called the two-week gathering a “festival of greenwashing”.

But dedicated pundits in the negotiating arena have hailed solid, even historic advances in tackling the existential threat of global warming.

More often than not, observers oscillated between approval and criticism, hope and despair.

“The Glasgow Climate Pact is more than we expected, but less than we hoped for,” said Dann Mitchell, head of climate risk at the UK Met Office.

Assessing the effectiveness of the measures announced at the COP26 summit largely depends on the standard used to measure them.

Compared to what has happened before, the first-ever call by 196 countries to cut coal power, or a pledge to double financial aid every year – to around $40 billion – so that poor countries can prepare for climate impacts, are giant steps forward .

Similarly, a provision requiring countries to consider setting more ambitious carbon pollution reduction targets every year rather than once every five years.

But all those hard-won gains at COP26 lose their significance when stacked against hard science.

Glasgow exit lane

An uninterrupted 2021 cascade of deadly floods, heat waves and wildfires across four continents, combined with ever more detailed projections, has left no doubt that going beyond the limit The 1.5 degree Celsius warming envisioned in the Paris Agreement would push the Earth into the red zone.

“As a long-time optimist, I consider Glasgow’s outcome to be half full rather than half empty,” said Alden Meyer, senior analyst at climate and energy think tank E3G.

“But the atmosphere reacts to emissions – not COP decisions – and there is still a lot of work to be done to translate the strong rhetoric here into reality.”

This year also saw the first part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) first comprehensive synthesis of climate science in seven years.

He found that global warming is almost certain to exceed 1.5°C, probably within a decade. Meanwhile, ocean levels are rising faster than expected and will do so for centuries.

And the forests, soils and oceans – which absorb more than half of humanity’s carbon pollution – are showing signs of saturation.

Then there’s the threat of “tipping points” that could see permafrost release massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, the Amazon basin turned into savannah, and ice caps losing enough mass to overwhelm cities and towns. deltas home to hundreds of millions of people.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’re still on our way to hell,” said Dave Reay, director of the University of Edinburgh’s Climate Change Institute.

“But Glasgow has at least created a way out.”

History of permanent break

Part 2 of the IPCC report on climate impacts, seen exclusively by AFP ahead of its publication in February 2022, reveals another gaping gap between the small steps of COP26 and what is needed in the long term.

Helping vulnerable countries deal with the multiplier effect of global warming on extreme weather may soon require trillions of dollars a year, not the tens of billions put on the table at COP26, a draft version of the report makes clear. report.

“Adaptation costs are significantly higher than previous estimates, resulting in a growing ‘adaptation finance gap’,” says an executive summary of the 4,000-page report.

The inability of rich countries to provide 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to help developing countries makes it difficult to imagine where these trillions will come from.

Glasgow marked the transition from crafting the rules of the 2015 Treaty of Paris to implementing its provisions.

But unlike the consequences of other major COPs, the climate crisis will remain front and center, and this story of permanent rupture is not going to fade anytime soon.

How this saga unfolds will depend a lot on the world’s four largest emitters, collectively responsible for 60% of the world’s carbon pollution.

The United States and the European Union pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050 and recently set more ambitious emissions reduction targets for 2030, but refused to create a fund demanded by more than 130 countries in development to help pay for the climate damage already suffered.

All sectors, all countries

China and India – accounting for 38% of global emissions in 2021, and growing – have resisted pressure to commit to moving away from fossil fuels.

Beijing has staunchly refused to do what scientists say is doable and necessary to stay below 2°C: peak their emissions well before 2030.

If climate policy remains stalled, however, global capital is already flowing into what some have called the most massive economic transformation in human history.

In Glasgow, former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney boasted that nearly 500 banks, insurers and asset managers worth $130 trillion were ready to fund the action climatic.

“If we only had to transform a sector or move a country away from fossil fuels, we would have done it a long time ago,” commented Christiana Figueres, who led the United Nations climate convention when the Paris agreement has been concluded.

“But all sectors of the global economy must be decarbonized and all countries must transition to clean technologies.”

Where some of that money could flow – and who could be left behind – has also been worked out, with major investment deals announced for South Africa, and more in the pipeline for emerging economies such than Indonesia and Vietnam.

But there is little incentive for private capital to help the poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries deal with climate devastation and build their defenses.

“We can’t just wait for open market incentives to kick in, we need to put prices on carbon globally, we need to set science-based targets that become climate laws,” Johan Rockstrom said. , director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. .

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