Climate catastrophe or inevitable after COP26?

Train in flood

Often during the last twenty years, climate activists have had high hopes that humanity will avert a climate catastrophe.

Thousands of scientists warned us not once, not twice but four times – in 1992,2017, 2019 and 2021. On each occasion it was that humanity was on a collision course with nature.

A search on “climate action” yields 26 million results. There are climate action groups all over the world. Even in New Zealand with a population of 5 million, there is a Climate Action Network comprising major groups like 350.0rg, Gen Zero etc. In 2017, former Green Party leader Jeanette Fitzsimons got 3000 people to sign Our Climate Declaration. Now we have Extinction Rebellion and a myriad of local groups to add to this list.

Various IPCC reports have warned us how urgent this all is.

Political interference again

COP26 is now just days away.  The Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC was compiled by thousands of scientists. But BBC revealed a leak that “Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels.”  The leak also revealed Argentina, Norway and Opec talking up the possibility of CCS (carbon capture storage). They want to emit in the hopes that new technologies will capture their carbon from the atmosphere. IPCC scientists doubt that technology is good enough.

There was still some hope in 2015 with the Paris Agreement. In 2018 the IPCC warned there was just a decade to get climate change under control.  They warned “emissions would have to be on an extremely steep downward path by 2030 to either hold the world entirely below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or allow only a brief “overshoot” in temperatures.” But emissions kept rising.

In the US, Democrat Senator Joe Manchin is blocking effective action on climate. Not surprisingly he is a recipient of fossil fuel money. The Guardian reports, “In the current electoral cycle, Manchin has received more in political donations from the oil and gas industry than any other senator, more than double the second largest recipient.”

In Brazil Bolsonaro has presided over the destruction of about 10,000 square miles of the Amazon rainforest, one of the most precious ecosystems on the planet. The destruction started around 2002 but was slowing down at the time Bolsonaro became president in 2019. By July 2021 the Amazon, instead of being a carbon sink, has become a carbon source.

So when COP26 fails are we to blame Mohammed bin Salman, Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison and Joe Manchin?

Five years ago a Pakistani delegate on his way to COP21 in Paris,  Adil Najam wrote in the Guardian, “I am not a cynic – just old. Old enough to remember the dashed hopes of Kyoto (COP 3, 1997), the purposeful energy of Berlin (COP 1, 1995), the naïve optimism of Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) was first adopted, and even the calls for urgency when the negotiation process was first launched by the United Nations in 1990.”

The big emitting countries

China, India, the EU, and the US contributed around 60% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in 2017. Add  Canada, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Australia and the percentage rises. Few of these apart from some EU countries have reduced emissions since COP25 in 2019.

The UN warned that more than 70 countries are expected to submit revised (stronger) plans to curb emissions before Glasgow. This summit COP26 was originally scheduled for 2020 but because of Covid it is 2021. We are not holding our breath.

Only 113 countries have come up with improved plans so far for COP26. BBC News said, “Analysis of the climate plans submitted so far shows that emissions are actually set to rise by 16% by 2030, which could lead to a temperature rise of 2.7C (4.9F) above pre-industrial levels.”

Hope is fading

Ever since 1992 when UN climate summits started, global emissions have steadily risen. Despite flashes of hope throughout those many years, the relentless upward trend continues. And now that big emitters have signalled their desire to water down ambitions, our hope is fading fast again.

We could spend a great deal of time assigning blame for this succession of failures. We could blame Bolsanaro or Trump, no trouble. After 2015 the Bolivian president was one of many low emitting nations to blame capitalism.

Political tensions add to the roadblocks for COP26, with President Joe Biden stepping up the rhetoric on Taiwan, angering China. Russia hasn’t had its natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 approved by all the European nations yet. So Putin may be punishing them by sending them less gas. Or else Russia simply needs the gas now for their own domestic purposes.

Then there is the problem of not transitioning to renewables early enough. After shutting its nuclear plants and setting up wind farms Germany has had to return to gas fired electricity generation when the wind died down. So it is experiencing high natural gas prices (they are now six times higher than at the beginning of the year). This in turn is leading to high power prices.

Britain is also coping with Brexit, a truck driver shortage and a natural gas shortage. There are going to be many Europeans and English people shivering this coming winter.

The outlook in northern China is bleak. They are paying the price for not transitioning to renewables in time. Their coal prices have soared and their coal mines have been flooded more than once. And this is at the time that Xi Jinping has decreed that coal usage must reduce in order to meet their climate goals.

Transitioning to renewables anywhere will not be smooth or easy and anyway renewables are less energy intense than fossil fuels.  In America coal fired power generation is on the rise because of high natural gas prices.

While there is a tiny chance significant progress could be made, given the difficulty of transitioning to renewables together with the interference by nations dependent on fossil fuels, it is more likely that COP26 will fail. 

 

 

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Why has NZ managed to increase its net emissions since 1990 while others reduced them?

I asked Professor Robert McLachlan this and he answered, “Cutting down more trees than we planted wasn’t so great but the bigger impact of trees in our climate policy has been to delay getting out of fossil fuels.  We put all our eggs in the domestic & international carbon trading basket, which fell apart in the 2010s. Now we’re trying more tools. We didn’t have to get out of generating electricity from coal as UK did.”

In the past its main flaws were:-
  1. political football, e.g. as soon as it was set up National campaigned to weaken it, removing agriculture and giving everyone a 50% discount, only recently phased out.
  2. no cap on emissions.
  3. was designed to work together with international markets, but these failed. NZ was a major party to the biggest carbon trading scandal of all time.
  4. carbon price too low.”

He is merciful.

Not so the late Jeanette Fitzsimons who said in  2016, “Scrap it. It fails on every count. Many suspect the design of the ETS, with no price floor and no emissions cap, was never intended to make a real difference to our climate-changing emissions. It was intended to provide a trading platform for speculators, which it has done. While all this waste of effort has been going on, the existence of the ETS has been used to justify having no other measures to address climate change.”

She said, “The purpose of a price on carbon emissions is to encourage people and firms to make better decisions in how they use energy (avoid that extra trip to town); and more importantly, better investment decisions: a wood-waste boiler instead of coal; a wind rather than gas-fired power station; a more efficient car next time. The ETS has done none of this.”

And after reading a long  review of it by Catherine Leining, Suzi Kerr and Bronwyn Bruce-Brand, I can’t help but agree with Jeanette’s conclusion,”Any further public time and expense tweaking a broken system will send good money after bad, and use resources that would be better used on measures that will actually reduce emissions.” In one telling sentence at the end, they admit it failed, but they don’t comment on whether the new version will work.

Leining et al’s review goes into the painfully long history since 1993 , says the system applies to about 52% of our gross emissions, says agriculture was going to be introduced in 2013 once ( it not getting there till 2023), gives a graph showing how the price dropped from  just less than $30 a tonne in 2011 to about $5 in 2013 then crept up again, and concludes that ETS was “not designed to achieve specific targets for domestic mitigation.”  Then comes the punch line. “As a result, while it constitutes a functional cross-sector market, the NZ ETS has not significantly reduced domestic emissions to date”  (They failed to say that net emissions had risen 60%)

They go on to say how it will be tweaked. Units will be auctioned every three months from March 2020 under a cap, which is an improvement. It will also limit  participant purchasing of overseas units and improve forestry accounting.

However a major distortion occurs by giving a 90 percent subsidy to businesses who are “emissions intensive and trade exposed”.  Stuff journalist Charlie Mitchell produced a comprehensive article on these industries.  Australian owned Blue Scope Steel, Canadian owned Methanex, Fletchers Golden Bay Cement, Rio Tinto’s aluminium smelter and Fonterra are the biggest recipients. It is argued that some would relocate overseas if they were in the scheme.

It’s no wonder Charlie Mitchell summed up up in Feb 2020 as “Kafkaesque, having nightmarish complexity, riddle with exemptions, impenetrable” and economist Geoff Bertram called it a “dog’s breakfast”.

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