PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 21 April 2019

Although carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, new modelling demonstrates that it is still technically and economically feasible to keep global warming below 1.5oC, with many advantages for the world’s economy, jobs and public health, but the influence of fossil fuel companies makes it politically unlikely. And yet with just 1oC of warming, life in Africa and Bangladesh is already pretty tough. Indonesia’s plastic waste is causing problems for northern Australia and there would be mutual advantage from the two countries working together on the problem.

An international team of scientists, led by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), has developed the One Earth climate model which shows that it is still possible to keep global warming under 1.5oC this century by relying only on (1) a rapid worldwide transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050, (2) stopping all land clearing by 2030 and (3) restoring forests and other natural vegetation so that 400 GtCO2 can be drawn out of the atmosphere by 2100. Most previous models demonstrating the possibility of keeping warming below 1.5oC have relied on unproven, expensive and potentially very dangerous technologies such as Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Capture and Storage (particularly Bio-energy with Capture and Storage, BECCS) to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere after the temperature has risen above 1.5oC. The One Earth model demonstrates that all three proposed strategies are do-able and successful implementation will cost less than today’s energy system, improve public health, drive economic development and create 12 million additional jobs. What’s not to like?

… plenty if you are ExxonMobil, a fossil fuel company that has been peddling disinformation, having undue influence over government decision making for decades, and don’t want things to change, while all-the-while making it look as though you’re doing all you can to reduce global warming. Threatened with losing its lobbying badges granting free access to the European Parliament for misleading EU decision-makers and refusing to attend a hearing to investigate the matter, lobbyists for ExxonMobil and their industry peak organisations mobilised behind the scenes to prevent the loss of their privileges. It may be technically possible and economically prudent to stay below 1.5oC but politically it is all but impossible. The power and voice of civil society are increasing but this story demonstrates who still has the most influence in government circles.

Remember NDCs? Nationally Determined Contributions – the emissions reduction target each country set for itself as part of the Paris climate agreement in 2015. Every country also agreed to establish an updated NDC, which must not be a backward step, by the end of 2020. African countries are mobilising to develop stronger NDCs for 2020, with, not surprisingly, emphasis on building resilience to the effects of climate change (think Mozambique) rather than mitigation. Frankly, they don’t have much at present to mitigate: collectively the African nations, with about one sixth of the world’s population, produce only about 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Their annual emissions are about 1.1 tonne per head. Compare that with the USA (that currently produces about 15% of the global emissions) and Australia (about 1%) where annual emissions are about 16 tonnes per head. Were African people to consume like Australians, now or in the future, we could forget an increase of 2 or 3oC, never mind 1.5oC.

For an intimate look at what life can be like right now for poor people in a developing, low emissions country already experiencing the effects of climate change, have a look at this story from Bangladesh – the pictures are astonishing. I don’t suppose many fossil fuel executives live in Bangladesh or Africa.

Every year Australia’s northern waters and coastline (and the marine life and birds that live there) are assaulted with tonnes of ghost nets (discarded fishing gear) and waste, including lots of plastic waste. The majority of the waste comes from Indonesia. It is in the interests of both countries to work together on reducing it. Australia could contribute targeted aid and technology transfer to Indonesia to help it recycle plastics. This would create jobs and assist Indonesia’s tourism and fishing industries, and promote regional cooperation.

The good news on energy is that the uptake of renewables continues globally. The bad news is that they aren’t replacing fossil fuels; they are helping to meet the world’s increasing demand for energy. The two graphs below demonstrate that energy-related CO2 emissions looked as though they might have plateaued in 2014-16 but then they increased at over half a Gigaton a year in the two following years.

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