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THE NEXT FIVE YEARS MAY DEFINE THE FUTURE FOR A MILLENNIUM

Sir David King,  Founder and Chair of the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge

The world’s great coastal cities are all slowly sinking beneath the waves as a result of climate change – and for many the threat from rising sea levels is already lapping at the door.

The latest projections suggest day to day life will be impossible by 2050 for the 15 million people in Kolkata, India, and the 11 million of Jakarta because of rising sea levels. Meanwhile, almost 100 million Vietnamese will be forced from their homes as frequent flooding leaves nine tenths of the nation underwater. South East Asia is most at risk, but most other areas of the world will be impacted.

This is the reality of climate change.

Across the world, changes are occurring more rapidly than many scientists predicted because of the unexpected speed at which global warming is causing sea ice to melt in the Arctic. Already, temperatures in the Arctic Circle are tracking at 3.5˚ C above the pre-industrial levels - far higher than in the rest of the world, which is 1.5˚ C above pre-industrial levels.

Concerningly, this warming pattern is accelerating because of a feedback loop that takes place when sea ice melts.

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Put simply, sunshine reflects when it hits the bright, white surface of Arctic sea ice, bouncing back upwards along with 90% of its heat. But when the ice melts, the effects are reversed, and as sunlight pours down over the darker surface of the sea, it is absorbed, along with 90% of its heat, increasing the warming effect. Even if we were to stop emitting carbon today, temperatures would still increase by three to four degrees Celsius by the end of the century because the climate system has a lot of inertia in it - but that doesn’t mean we can’t take decisive action now.

We are used to hearing that the world’s forests form one of the world’s lungs and the other is the ocean, but urgent government is needed to protect those lungs. Scenarios, like the one in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro recently oversaw the loss of about 15 billion trees from the Amazon rainforest in 2020, cause climate mayhem. If the world had a plan to grow 15 billion trees, we would be moving in the right direction, but in the case of Brazil, we have removed 15 billion, an act of enormous irresponsibility impacting all of us.

Likewise, Indonesia and Malaysia and the regions surrounding them, have been fond of meeting the demand for palm oil by taking tropical forests out and growing palm oil plantations, which is another widespread area of loss - and as economically developed countries move towards a vegetarian diet – the demand for beef is rocketing in India, SE Asia, China and Africa because of a rapidly emerging middle class that is looking for a meat-based diet. This is another area that needs to be challenged.

Even if we were to stop emitting carbon today, temperatures would still increase by three to four degrees Celsius by the end of the century because the climate system has a lot of inertia in it - but that doesn’t mean we can’t take decisive action now

Carbon pricing and the renewable model

Altering this negative trajectory requires governments to intervene and create a structured market for carbon pricing. A progressive carbon price that could set a price of $50 a tonne for carbon today and $100 a tonne in three years’ time, increasing every three years into the future, would be fastest way to persuade fossil fuel companies to start managing their business into renewable energy.

It is fascinating to consider how financial innovation has already driven down the price of renewable energy technology to a point where renewable energy installations are now cheaper per KW/hr electricity produced than traditional sources. The rapid reduction in renewable energy installations worldwide was stimulated by feed-in-tariffs beginning in Germany in 1989, introduced in Britain in 1997 and later spread across Europe and California.

By creating an artificial market, prices that were 40 times higher than energy from a coal fired power station are now cheaper than oil, gas and coal – as the market expanded and pulled in competition. Even off-shore wind in the UK is now cheaper to install per kW/hr than a coal-fired power station.


Optimism

I believe that what humanity does over the next four to five years will determine the future of humanity for a millennium. Scientific innovation that could help us manage rising sea levels and spiralling carbon emissions is well underway and it will be vital to push ahead with investment in natural capital projects to meet the targets set by government intervention.

But beyond this, we must still do more. In addition to decarbonizing our economies rapidly, we must capture greenhouse gases from the atmosphere at scale. We need to invest and provide scientists and engineers with the tools and resources they need, and the critical role of the private sector will be to roll these out at scale.

There is no other choice, if we want humanity to have a future. We have to follow through with our plans. We can do this, but the bottom line is: We must get together to do it.

Reprinted from the Perspective One series with kind permission of ForestLAB and the African Conservation Development Group.