Environment: 1.5 degrees is still alive (just)

Nov 20, 2022
Oil barrels with Earth Globe isolated on white background.

The bad news: more evidence of humanity’s callous disregard for the environment and our own future. The good news: sex in the moonlight is not yet dead.

COP reports (Part 2)

Here are the showstoppers from another four reports prepared for the COP meeting in Egypt.

UNEP – Emissions Gap Report 2022 ‘The Closing Window’:

  • The world is falling short of the Paris climate goals, with no credible pathway to 1.5°C. Only an urgent, large-scale, rapid, system-wide transformation of power, industry, transport, buildings, food and financial systems can avoid an accelerating climate disaster;
  • Were all countries’ emissions reduction promises to be implemented (unlikely!), there’d be a 66% chance of limiting warming to about 2.5oC this century. To rephrase that: in the unlikely event that all countries will actually start doing what they’ve promised, there’s a two in three chance that we’ll limit global warming to a disastrous 2.5oC and a one in three chance that warming will be even more disastrous;
  • To get on track to limit warming to 1.5oC, policies are needed to reduce global emissions by 45% from the 2019 level in the next 8 years, and to continue the rapid decline after that.

WRI – The State of Global Climate Action:

  • The adoption of wind and solar sources of power and of electric vehicles is increasing but …
  • Of 40 indicators of the change that is required by 2030 to keep global warming under 1.5oC, none is on track, 6 are heading in the right direction but at insufficient speed, 21 are heading in the right direction but well below the required pace, 5 are heading in the wrong direction and 8 have insufficient data to make a call;
  • Getting on track to achieve the 2030 targets will require an enormous acceleration in effort to transform almost all systems, e.g. power and food supplies, city structure and land management. The transformations will have enormous other benefits but also some risks, particularly increasing inequity within and among countries;
  • If fully implemented, countries’ 2030 commitments will lead to warming of 2.4-2.8o
  • The window to limit warming to 1.5oC is rapidly closing. All pathways to 1.5oC require immediate and ambitious action.

Oil Change – At a Crossroads: Assessing G20 and MDB international energy finance:

  • From 2019 to 2021, G20 countries and major multilateral development banks (MDBs) provided at least US$55 billion per year to finance oil (which received 53% of the total), gas and coal internationally. This is US$30 billion less than 2016-2018, mainly due to some countries no longer financing new fossil fuel projects overseas;
  • Over the same period, the financial support for renewable energy was US$29 billion per year, much the same as the previous three years;
  • Support for fossil fuels is counter to the G20 countries’ commitments to align financial flows to limiting global warming to 1.5oC and to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. Financial support is propping up fossil fuel companies and prolonging the fossil fuel era;
  • Most of the international energy finance flows from wealthy countries to other wealthy countries. Not much is helping developing countries leapfrog the fossil fuel era.

Land Gap Report (produced by a consortium including the Universities of Melbourne and Griffith):

  • Total area of land needed to implement countries’ pledges for land(or nature)-based removal of CO2 from the atmosphere is almost 1.2 billion hectares, equivalent to current cropland coverage and 20% larger than the USA. Conclusion: countries’ pledges rely on unrealistic amounts of land-based carbon removal;
  • More than half of the area involves plantations and reforestation, putting pressure on ecosystems, food production and Indigenous people’s rights;
  • Protecting forests and restoration of degraded forests is essential for solving the overlapping biodiversity, climate change and social justice problems. Primary forests store much more carbon than new forests and plantations, and support healthier, more diverse, more resilient ecosystems;
  • Land-based carbon removal can help us stay closer to 1.5oC provided it complements and does not offset major emissions reductions in all sectors.

The conclusions are the same as last week really. Despite the situation being desperate, not enough is being done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, more funding is going towards fossil fuels than renewables. Nations’ plan to use nature to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere are at best naïve and possibly duplicitous.

600 delegates in Egypt linked to fossil fuels

In Glasgow twelve months ago, there were 503 delegates with connections to fossil fuels at the COP meeting but this year there are estimated to be 636. Some are registered as fossil fuel industry representatives; some are members of national delegations, most notably existing large coal, oil and gas producers such as the United Arab Emirates, where next year’s COP will be held, and Russia.

Unfortunately, also present are some African nations lobbying to be allowed to develop their own oil and gas reserves This is fully understandable but if the rich nations were really committed to controlling global warming they’d be saying, ‘Yes, we know that 600 million people in Africa (about half the population) lack access to electricity; yes, we know that you need a strong economy to develop socially; and so, yes, we understand why you want to dig up and sell your oil and gas, and we can see that you have a moral right to do it, but why don’t we help you to leapfrog that disastrous, old technology and go straight to renewables. We’ve got the money, the expertise, the technology and the desire to help you.’

The leapfrogging approach is strongly supported by the ‘Don’t Gas Africa’ campaign led by a coalition of African civil society groups. They present strong equity, economic, development, health, human rights and environmental arguments for African nations to resist the lobbying of the fossil fuel industry and some European governments to be allowed to continue their neo-colonial exploitation, and in preference prioritise investments and incentives for a just transition to reliable, affordable, universal access to sustainable energy for all.

If only we’d started earlier

No one is saying that it would have been easy but had we started in 2000 we could have had a relatively planned, steady, slow(ish) and orderly reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to keep warming below 1.5oC. As it is, for that target to be met, the reduction now has to be precipitous and the consequences are likely to be chaotic.

How could anyone looking at the graph above avoid the conclusion that we won’t keep warming under 1.5oC? Technically we still can, we simply won’t. That doesn’t mean that we should give up, just that the sooner we do start reducing emissions, the lower the eventual warming will be and every tenth of a degree matters … if not to us, to subsequent generations.

Barrier Reef’s once a year day

… or rather night. Corals reproduce sexually, all at the same time on one or two nights of the year. Anne Hoggett, Co-Director of the Lizard Island Research Station, provides a personal account of the remarkable mass spawning event that occurred on the Great Barrier Reef on November 11th and 12th. The actual date varies from year to year depending on when in November the full moon occurs.

Insects

Across the world, many species of insect have suffered dramatic declines in numbers in recent decades. This is attributable to a range of factors: habitat fragmentation and loss, insecticides, pollution, invasive species, global warming, loss of safe havens, etc.

Insects live in many environments – on and in the soil, on flora and fauna, over water – and provide many important functions: e.g. pollination of native flora and crops, food sources for many other animals, especially birds and bats, controlling pests and recycling nutrients. They play crucial roles in maintaining diversity and resilience in many ecosystems. I’m yet to meet anyone who enjoys having an evening stroll or their sleep disturbed by mosquitoes, or wants to catch malaria, but a complete collapse of insect numbers (‘insect apocalypse’) would be truly catastrophic for humans and nature generally.

Long term, gradual warming and associated changes in the timing of the seasons can affect insect distribution, behaviour, health, reproductive success and numbers but the effects are seldom immediately or obviously apparent. Variations in the rate of warming (polar areas, winters and nights are warming fastest) will clearly differentially affect different insect species and ecosystems.

Europe’s emperor dragonfly has moved northwards and higher since 2000 in response to warming.

Short term, unpredictable climate extremes such as heatwaves, cold spells, droughts, extreme rainfall, floods and fires can also have dramatic consequences for insects which are particularly vulnerable because of their small size, narrow range of temperature tolerance and, in some cases, relative immobility.

Local environmental characteristics can either harm or benefit insects, particularly during climate extremes. There is, however, much that local authorities, communities, farmers, land managers and householders can do to support insects. The figure below suggests ways of changing local environments, particularly in cities which are very insect-unfriendly, to remove or reduce ‘insect-destructive’ features and create ‘insect-supportive’ ones. The focus is on reducing ways in which natural environments have been simplified by intensive sculpting and rigid management and, instead, creating diversity and allowing a bit of wildness and disorder to develop.

Local action is good but the authors warn that ‘if no action is taken to better understand and reduce the action of climate change on insects, we will drastically reduce our ability to build a sustainable future based on healthy, functional ecosystems.’ As with the other major environmental problems, tackling the problems faced by insects within and across borders requires urgent changes to national and international priorities and policies concerning greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture and land use.

Global Land Use

The Land Gap Report contains this interesting figure showing how the world’s ice-free land surface is currently being used. It seems unjust to let some parts of Earth’s veneer miss out on the benefits of humanity’s guiding hand. Surely we can find a use for barren land and bare rock.

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