What’s up with climate change? Has it stopped yet, as some newspapers suggested?
Nope, sorry. It’s still galloping ahead. And next week we’ll hear exactly how fast, and what it will mean for our possible futures, as the world’s leading climate scientists issue their latest comprehensive assessment on what’s happening to our atmosphere, oceans, glaciers and so on, due to our continued fossil fuel addiction.
It’s been six years since the last assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). What can we expect this time?
It is no secret that despite previous stark warnings, the global emissions causing climate change continued to go up, not down. We’ve also learned that some parts of our climate system seem to be much more sensitive to warming than we thought, like the Arctic sea ice that has been disappearing before our eyes. So the new report is likely to make grim reading.
Will it be any different this time around then, in terms of action? Will Governments take notice?
The world is a very different place now. More and more people around the globe are experiencing climate-fuelled extreme weather events, such as deadly heat waves and devastating floods. As personal experience of the trauma of such events becomes more common, interest in understanding the effect of warming on extreme weather grows.
At the same time solutions have become more tangible. Since the last IPCC report, renewable energy has made a true breakthrough globally. It’s bigger, it’s cheaper, it’s growing fast and it’s challenging fossil fuels. There’s now ten times more solar photovoltaic, six times more concentrating solar thermal power and three times more wind power capacity in the world than in 2007. Prices have come down remarkably.
Wind Energy Farm in Colorado © Greenpeace / Robert Meyers
Last year over half of all new installed electric capacity worldwide was from renewable sources. Compared to conventional energy, the shares still remain modest, but the transition has truly started and some countries are already well on the way towards energy systems powered by solar, wind and other renewables. By 2050, renewable energy could meet almost all of the world’s energy needs, if the right policies are put in place, and if energy efficiency becomes a priority. Technology will no longer be a problem.
What of the fossil fuel industry, which has not only increased its activities and its emissions but has also funded disinformation campaigns about climate science in order to sow doubt and delay action?
The construction costs for conventional fossil fuel generation are increasing, whereas renewables are becoming more competitive in a growing number of markets, even without subsidies. Perhaps surprisingly, mighty coal has started to crumble due to air pollution regulations, lower demand projections, renewable energy uptake, worsening water constraints and growth of local anti-coal movements, among other things. These drivers are all reducing the attractiveness and competitiveness of coal. Among the most recent blows to coal’s future prospects were the decisions by the World Bank and the European Investment Bank to stop almost all lending to coal projects.
China’s recent decision to ban new coal power plants in three major industrial regions and to peak and decline their coal use by 2017 is especially promising: a major policy shift. Beijing’s “airpocalypse” – an exceptionally serious air pollution episode last January – created a tipping point for a political awakening that’s been building since 2011, with citizens demanding clean air.
Fossil fuels are yesterday’s energy. Of the 111 coal-plant proposals in Europe in 2008, only two materialised. Many more have closed or were shelved – and more will before 2015, as a new directive limiting air pollutants kicks in. Some market analysts suggest we are seeing the beginning of the end of coal.
And it’s not just coal. Analysts at investment bank Citi argue that oil demand could reach a tipping point much earlier than the market expects, and could peak by 2020. If demand falls, expensive carbon – like Canada’s tar sands and Arctic oil drilling – could become unprofitable. That’s an inconvenient projection for major oil companies.
So yes, it is different now. It is clearer than ever that we have some fundamental choices ahead of us about the kind of world we want to live in and the future we want to bequeath to our children. And while future prognoses look grim, there’s also new hope, in a way that didn’t exist in 2007.
Whilst they failed to deliver the global deal we were hoping for, world governments have agreed to keep global average temperature rise below 2 degrees C. To achieve this, emissions will need to stop growing well before 2020 and then rapidly decline towards zero in the coming decades.
It’s a tall order but the solution is within our grasp.
The right kind of future is absolutely possible. We must demand that our governments act now, and act swiftly, to speed up the clean energy transition and refuse to allow the fossil fuel industry to derail their efforts.
The IPCC will release the first chapter of its report: the Physical Scientific Basis, on 27 September in Stockholm. The next three chapters will be released next year. Greenpeace experts Stephanie Tunmore, Kaisa Kosonen and Martina Krüger are at the spot at the IPCC report approval meeting (23-26 September) in Stockholm. You can follow them on Twitter @kaisakosonen and @MartinaKrueger.