The climate is arguably the biggest issue of the day, even allowing for the raging debates about Trump and Brexit; it’s also the most likely to stay on our agendas in the long term. The level of activism on the issue has also soared in recent years, no longer being limited to a meagre collection of ranting, vegetable-waving, BO-clad bio warriors, but now including legions of ranting, city-blocking, fake blood water cannon-toting, eco apostles, ready to glue themselves to trains all over the globe. Yet even serious voices (and a large part of the less disruptive population) generally accept that mankind’s actions are affecting the planet and its atmosphere. Even in the cases of those who don’t accept this, the benefits of the reduction in pollution over the last few decades are undeniable, and the case for further reduction is overwhelming. Clearly action must be taken. But the key question for any proposed action (you’d think it would be obvious) is – will it work?
It’s easy to lurch into an emotional and superficially obvious action. Why don’t we immediately abolish carbon-producing technologies, cry many of the Extinction Rebellion protestors. Well, because the economy is still incredibly reliant on carbon-producing technologies, and such an sudden action would destroy the economy – and with economic crisis, the protestors will suddenly find that they are a lot less tolerated the next time they take to the streets. Even a target to scale back rapidly over the next decade would be fraught with complications.
In any case, protests, for example a la Extinction Rebellion, are focused mainly in western countries. Western commentators, as well as leading voices for climate action outside the West, are mainly only doing their agitating – or at least being listened to – in developed countries. But western countries only account for a minority of global carbon emissions. The Centre for Global Development estimated that developing countries were responsible for 63% of global carbon emissions in 2015, increasing to 71% if you include non-EU, developed Eurasian nations (including Russia). The UK itself only produces about 1%. So the question, therefore, is whether these countries – between them accounting for a far higher proportion of global emissions than the countries targeted by the protestors – will change their behaviour.
Largely, as mentioned, these are developing countries. China (in as far as you can realistically include the second biggest economy in the world with other developing economies) is by a long way the biggest producer of carbon emissions globally – according to the latest EU figures, relating to the year 2017, it produces comfortably more than the US and the EU put together (29.34% of global emissions for China compared to a combined total of 23.35% for the US and EU). And at present, it is on target to meet its Paris Agreement target for 2030.
However, these Paris Agreement targets are set by each country for themselves. According to the Climate Action Tracker website (a joint venture between Climate Analytics and the New Climate Institute which compares government climate action with the Paris Agreement aims), China’s self-set targets are “not ambitious enough to limit warming to below 2°C, let alone to 1.5°C as required under the Paris agreement, unless other countries make much deeper reductions at comparably greater effort”. Given how much greater China’s current emissions are than the rest of the world’s countries, they have a lot more room for manoeuvre in setting the pace at which they decrease their emissions than western nations, meaning that they can continue powering their economy using cheaper fossil fuels for longer. On the basis of their current actions, they seem unwilling to give up this advantage any time soon – hardly surprising, particularly when you consider the constant accusations against the country of gaming the international system for competitive advantage. It seems that China is in no rush to play the environmental game.
India, just on China’s border, is the next biggest individual producer from among these countries. It currently lags behind China on the carbon emissions front, but has been making up for that with fast-rising emissions levels over the last few years, with an average emissions increase of 5% per year over the last decade. India also has high ambitions, powering fast towards their goal of maturing their economy, whilst at the same time promoting themselves as a major player on the international scene, even running their own space programme. These advances have predominantly been based on carbon emissions from fossil fuels – the scale of these having been brought to the world’s attention yet again recently with the dangerous smogs smothering New Delhi. India also regularly clashes with its neighbour, China, along the border between the two countries and in nearby areas, most significantly in recent times in the 2017 Doklam stand-off. It also has a similar population size but a significantly smaller economy than China. It won’t want to lose a step in the race to catch up with its neighbour and strengthen its own hand in relation to any future diplomatic tussles in their mutual area of influence.
That said, there are signs that India may rein in its carbon emissions: the increase in such emissions dropped to 2% in the first eight months of 2019, and the Climate Action Tracker sees reason for optimism in the country’s heavy investment in renewable energy and in the fact that it is currently on course to over-achieve its 2°C compatible target. Yet nonetheless, if it means losing out competitively to what it sees as its aggressively expansionist (economically at least) neighbour, it is highly feasible that fossil fuels would be back with a vengeance.
And other developing countries? Developing countries have lower expectations placed on them by the Paris Agreement – and many of these countries are increasing their use of fossil fuels. It is easy to understand why many may be resistant to applying too stringent and strict rules to carbon reduction. Western, developed countries have grown prosperous and comfortable on the back of fossil fuels. The citizens of developing countries want similar living standards and qualities of life, while their governments want to achieve the same level of economic sophistication. They will not necessarily be receptive to diktats preventing them from doing so. For western countries to preach to developing countries about the ills of their ways will seem to many like latent colonial oppression, with hypocritical western governments high-handedly ordering them not to follow the same path that they themselves trod. It would sound odd that in the name of progress we were urging them to renounce the technologies that had brought us progress; it would sound all too much like we were asking them to regress. Many such countries are not on track to meet the 1.5°C target.
So yes, one-hundred-and-ninety-five countries signed up to the Paris Agreeement (which, incidentally, doesn’t go far enough for the liking of Extinction Rebellion and chums). But many are not on track to do their part. And carbon emissions are going up.
It appears, therefore, that the current course of action, which is also the overriding focus of attention and activism on this issue, namely carbon emission reduction, won’t work. Certainly not in the timescales being demanded by activists; most likely not in the timescales decided upon at the Paris Agreement. So what to do?
One could argue that it is time for a more proactive approach, one that actively offsets and counteracts emissions and the results of emissions. Known as geoengineering, there have been several suggestions as to how this could be achieved. One is to artificially increase the ocean’s iron content, on which algae called phytoplankton grow. Phytoplankton use photosynthesis to capture carbon dioxide from the air and, when they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking the trapped carbon with them. Another proposal, based on the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions, is to release aerosols (extremely fine particles suspended in the air) into the upper atmosphere. These aerosols reflect away sunlight from the Earth, which would lead to a cooling effect and could offset greenhouse gas warming effects. Alternatively, or in conjunction with either or both of the above, is the idea of spraying sea water into clouds over the ocean. The salt water would cause the clouds to grow bigger and brighter, thereby reflecting more of the Sun’s energy back into space and leading to cooler temperatures on the planet. There are also proposals to capture carbon from the atmosphere and bury it in the ground or to recycle carbon from the air, extracting it via machine and then using it for other purposes, such as for fuel, in greenhouses, or even in fizzy drinks.
Yet geoengineering is hotly debated, with many scientists arguing that it could simply create new – and possibly even worse – problems for the planet. Iron in the sea may be good for phytoplankton, but it could damage or destroy existing marine ecosystems. Aerosols would only cool the earth, but would not counteract problems such as ocean acidification; the sulphur in aerosols could also deplete the ozone layer. Increasing the size and whiteness of clouds again only addresses the issue of temperature, and if it begins to block sunlight from land for extended periods of time, questions of both health and ethics would come into play. As such, it is currently unclear as to whether these proposals and solutions would work or whether they would even be desirable. Research into them is ongoing, but such research surely merits greater backing from government, philanthropists and the media if current methods are failing in any case.
Or, alternatively, we turn the focus of investment, research and energy towards making green technology competitive with fossil fuel technology, so that it becomes not only as cheap as, if not cheaper than, its carbon belching equivalent, but also so that it becomes as powerful and efficient as it. If this can be achieved, then the moral arguments against carbon emission will become far more persuasive to developing countries; moreover, such countries do not have to hold back or damage their economic development in making the transition. If current methods aren’t working, then the only way to cut emissions is to cut the legs away from under the emission producing technologies; make it economically viable, even preferable, for all of the world to use green technology, and the emissions targets will be exceeded. Less time and investment should be spent on trying to coax unrealistic and regressive targets out of countries globally, more should be spent on trying to drive that change through force of success.
Yes, such research and development is already underway and picking up momentum. Yet not fast enough. If we are truly in such urgent time circumstances, then greater effort in the production of such technology is surely vital. This must come from government, in terms of inducements and incentives, as well as funding; this must come from corporations, in commitments to such research and in philanthropic support of such research; this must come from protestors, through re-focusing their campaigning in support of such action, rather than counter-productively slowing local economies and turning populaces against their cause. It’s time to be practical and constructive rather than ineffectual and reactive.
Whichever path we take, we cannot rely on other governments to do their bit for the climate; we must act ourselves, we must take the lead. And we must do so not in a naive, hopeful way, but in a practical, hard-headed way. If we are truly serious about saving the environment, it may be time for governments and activists alike to rebalance the focus of their efforts. We must find solutions that work. The answer lies in scientific progress, not regression.