Two worrying stories have dominated climate news this week.
The first is President Elect Donald Trump’s alarming stance on climate change. Although in favour of urgent action before the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, he’s promised to pull out of the Paris Agreement immediately, claimed that climate science is a Chinese hoax and has announced an end to the “war on coal”. He is also appointing climate sceptics (including Myron Ebell and possibly Harold Hamm) to key positions.
The other is the scary news that 2016 is set to be the third consecutive hottest year in succession at 1.2C above pre-industrial levels (when the Paris target is just 1.5C). This comes on the back of continual bad climate news from all quarters of the globe.
Let’s take the second of these first. Sixteen of the 17 hottest years on record will have occurred this century, disproving the sceptics’ claim that warming ceased in about 1997. Climate models are shown to be reliable and the upward trend is continuing as predicted.
But does this mean it’s already game over for the climate?
Piers Forster, director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds, urged caution in a round of media interviews this week, tweeting, “We mustn’t get too excited about one hot year, just as we shouldn’t call climate a hoax if one is cold.” Interviewed in the Yorkshire Post he explained, “Everything else being equal, we expect temperature records to be regularly broken – so this is not at all surprising.”
This year’s spike was in fact strongly influenced by the recent El Nino, a cyclical event which routinely delivers warming. (The last one occurred in 1997/8, delivering a spike which disguised the CO2-driven trend of the early noughties – fuelling those claims that warming had ceased.) But now El Nino has passed, so the graph should look slightly less alarming next year. However, this provides no excuse for complacency.
Piers told the Yorkshire Post: “The Paris Agreement sets a target of 1.5C because long-term sea-level rise, that will permanently destroy low-lying nations, kicks in above this temperature. But even the most optimistic scenarios envision decades where we overshoot this target, and then return towards 1.5C around the end of the century.”
Throughout this time, and especially during peak temperature periods, life is going to be very difficult for many people, he said. “Infrastructure improvements are needed to cope with extreme weather. We need better flood defences and to prepare our homes, villages, towns and cities to cope with both flooding and heatwaves. Farmers need to begin to think about growing different crop varieties and protecting their crops from different pests and diseases.”
And this essential return to 1.5C is going to require a major global effort, not only to reduce emissions down to near zero, but also to recapture huge quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses already released into the atmosphere. Which is only achievable if the world’s largest emitter, the USA, takes an active and ideally leading role.
So, given our first story, how realistic is that prospect? Well, surprisingly again, the news is not quite as grim as it would appear.
First, Trump cannot simply cancel the USA’s ratification of the Paris Agreement. It’s locked in for four years, by which time there will have been another US election.
Second, many – including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – believe the process has become unstoppable. Trump and the USA will face fierce opposition from the rest of the world, who may even resort to taxing high-carbon US products, as proposed by Nicolas Sarkozy, or other punitive measures. (On the ‘hoax’ claim, Trump has been sharply repudiated by the Chinese, who point out that it was his Republican predecessors who initiated climate negotiations in the 1980s.)
And third, Trump and the Federal Government do not control everything in the USA. Many states and cities are already committed to carbon reduction, as are many corporations – especially those who can see major opportunities in green business – and other influential organisations.
“Climate mitigation policies around the world are beginning to deliver. Hopefully, emissions have peaked,” said an upbeat Piers Forster, interviewed for BBC News online. “There is also a lesson for the incoming US administration here – you don’t need coal to drive economic growth.”
Commenting in Energy Voice on new data released by the University of East Anglia and the Global Carbon Project showing that global CO2 emissions have stalled over the past three years, he said the findings “reveal the first green shoots of success for global climate policy”.
“Ever since the industrial revolution, economic growth has come at the cost of burning more fossil fuels but for the first time last year the world economy grew without a corresponding rise in emissions.” Piers’s comments were also carried in New Scientist and he was interviewed on Sky News.
Meanwhile work to protect, restore and increase the one thing we know can help – forests – continues apace in every country of the world, and once the green lights start to blink on manmade carbon capture and storage technology, we’ll finally be able to sound the trumpets in celebration of relative climate stability.
Tom Bliss, United Bank of Carbon (additional reporting by Kate Lock)
17 November 2016