Is it too late for us to do anything meaningful about climate change?

It’s been a year of weather extremes. Floods have killed thousands in India and across Asia. Record hurricanes have wreaked havoc across the Caribbean and the US. Fires, driven by drought, lay waste to large parts of Portugal and California. Closer to home, unprecedented
storms have claimed lives and leave thousands of homes under water. 

If, as reported, climate change is one of the biggest global threats to humanity is it too late to do anything meaningful to tackle it?

Transformation under way in battle to save the planet

The world is switching to cleaner energy faster than anybody had predicted, writes Jules Kortenhorst

After a season of record-breaking hurricanes, floods and fires, it would be easy to despair about the accelerating pace of climate change.

Yet, despite the apocalyptic omens, an energy transformation big enough and fast enough to curb the spike in global temperature remains within reach. Better still, we do not need to wait for new inventions to implement the changes we need; the transformation can happen right now, with profitable solutions delivered by businesses and driven by markets.

Limiting the increase in global temperature to within 2C of pre-industrial levels — the target set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement — require decreasing reliance on fossil fuels, and changing how the world grows crops, harvests timber, and uses land.

Research by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) shows that both outcomes are possible, and that, together, the impact can “positively” disrupt the trajectory of climate change.

JULY: A resident checks a collapsed road following heavy flooding in Asakura, Fukuoka prefecture, Japan, on July 7 this year. Huge floods engulfing parts of southern Japan killed at least six and left hundreds more stranded. Picture: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

According to our analysis, there are pathways for the future supply and demand of energy, and for how forests and land store carbon, that, if followed, will dramatically slow the pace of warming. By accelerating the clean-energy transition that is underway, it is possible to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions below what would be expected under current consumption patterns.

This scenario is not as far-fetched as some might believe. The world is already switching to cleaner energy, to electric mobility, and to smarter power and land-use systems faster than anyone, including experts, anticipated.

And it’s not the first time the pace of change has exceeded expectations. In 1980, for example, AT&T hired McKinsey & Company to forecast the number of mobile phones that would be in use in the US within two decades. The consultants predicted that by 2000, the US mobile phone market would support about 900,000 devices. In fact, over 100m phones were sold that year. Today, the planet has more phones than people.

Solar and wind energy have suffered similarly flawed projections. For decades, experts at the International Energy Agency underestimated how quickly supplies from these sources would grow.

They consistently guessed low, increasing their forecasts only slightly every year, without ever catching up to reality. But as clean-energy businesses innovated, the cost of production from wind and solar declined. Energy became cheaper, and usage increased as a result. Government models typically do not account for such expanding returns.

Another reason for underestimating the speed of today’s energy transition is that the scale is different from previous conversions to new technologies. When people switched from burning wood to burning coal, and then to burning oil, the “new” energy sources came from very large capital projects, like coalmines, offshore oil and gas fields, and refineries. The high costs of deploying these projects were then passed on to consumers.

By contrast, in today’s energy market, consumers have more control. Consider how easy it is to install rooftop solar panels; it can be done in a single day. Millions of small machines – photovoltaic cells, wind turbines, batteries, and smart appliances – are driving today’s energy transformation.

AUGUST: Indian residents wade through flood waters inWest Bengal on August 17. At least 221 people died and more than 1.5m weredisplaced by monsoon flooding across India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Picture: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Each new device in this distributed system is cheap and pays off quickly, so experimentation is affordable, and the technology can improve rapidly. The result is a huge field of global competitors, with faster innovation and new business models that are helping to achieve economies of scale.

The hardware of the clean-energy revolution has more in common with mobile phones and laptops than with mines and refineries. Because it can be sold in very large markets, with scalable production chains and still-maturing technologies, the transition to cleaner power is happening faster than many experts predicted it would. Still, not even a rapid shift toward “greener” energy will be enough to keep global average temperature within 2C of preindustrial levels. To achieve that, the world will also need to take more greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

Fortunately, that, too, is possible. By incorporating carbon-reducing strategies into agriculture and land conservation, more heat-trapping gases can be locked up in forests and soils. But while the techniques already exist, success will require increasing the use of no-till farming, adopting permaculture principles, better managing wetlands, and using rotational grazing techniques, among other measures.

The power of markets to drive radical changes in energy and land use is great, but as the storm season of 2017 should remind us, the climate emergency we face requires vigorous and urgent action. Transforming the way people acquire and consume energy, and use land, will require strong incentives and policy frameworks to set the course for success.

OCTOBER: Fishermen look out from the Glen Pier, Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, at the Atlantic during the record-breaking ex-hurricane Storm Ophelia. Three lives were lost and the nationwide shutdown is thought to have saved many more. Picture: Stephen Kelleghan

But don’t despair: There is still time to save our climate. The transformation has already begun — and it will play out faster than most people expect.

Jules Kortenhorst is CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.

We must bring the planet’s fever under control

Lives and livelihoods are being lost, but it is possible to fully decarbonise our energy and transportation systems within the next 40 years and keep temperature rises to 1.5C, writes Loren Legarda

OCTOBER: Brendan Coleman looking at a section of the roof off the Douglas Community School gym which was blown through his garden in the height of Storm Ophelia. Picture: Dan Linehan

The Earth today is more than 1C hotter than it was in pre-industrial times, and the terrible symptoms of its fever are already showing.

This year alone, back-to-back hurricanes have devastated Caribbean islands, monsoon flooding has displaced tens of millions in South Asia, and fires have raged on nearly every continent. Pulling the planet back from the brink could not be more urgent.

Those of us who live on the front lines of climate change — on archipelagos, small islands, coastal lowlands, and rapidly desertifying plains — can’t afford to wait and see what another degree of warming will bring.

Already, far too many lives and livelihoods are being lost. People are being uprooted, and vital resources are becoming increasingly scarce, while those suffering the most severe consequences of climate change are also among those who have done the least to cause it.

That is why the Philippines used its chairmanship of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) — an alliance of the 48 countries that stand to bear the brunt of climate change — to fight to ensure that the 2015 Paris climate agreement aimed explicitly to cap global warming at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

JULY: A distressed woman looks on at the column of smoke during a wildfire in Macao, central Portugal, on July 26. Picture: Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty

For us, 1.5C isn’t merely a symbolic or “aspirational” number to be plugged into international agreements; it is an existential limit. If global temperatures rise above that level, the places we call home — and many other homes on this planet — will become uninhabitable or even disappear completely.

When we first introduced the 1.5C target back in 2009, we met substantial resistance. Climate-change deniers — those who refuse to believe the science of human-induced global warming — continue to dismiss any such effort to stem the rise in the planet’s temperature as futile and unnecessary.

But even well-meaning climate advocates and policymakers often opposed the 1.5C target, arguing that, according to the science, humans had already emitted enough greenhouse gases to make meeting that goal virtually impossible.

Yet, on this front, the science is not as clear-cut as it might have seemed. According to a recent paper published in Nature, the world’s remaining “carbon budget” — the amount of carbon-dioxide equivalents we can emit before breaching the 1.5C threshold — is somewhat larger than was previously thought.

Brad Matheney offers help to a man in a wheelchair in a flooded street while Hurricane Harvey passes through Texas in August.

This finding is no reason for complacency, as some commentators (not scientists) seem to think. It does not mean that previous climate models were excessively alarmist, or that we can take a more relaxed approach to reining in global warming. Instead, the paper should inspire — and, indeed, calls for — more immediate, deliberate, and aggressive action to ensure that greenhouse-gas emissions peak within a few years and net-zero emissions are achieved by mid-century.

What would such action look like? Global emissions would need to be reduced by 4%-6% every year, until they reached zero. Meanwhile, forest and agricultural lands would have to be restored, so that they could capture and sequester greater amounts of carbon dioxide. Fully decarbonising our energy and transportation systems in four decades will require a herculean effort, but it is not impossible.

Beyond their environmental consequences, such efforts would generate major economic gains, boosting the middle class in developed countries and pulling hundreds of millions out of poverty in the developing world, including by fuelling job creation.

The energy transition will lead to massive efficiency savings, while improving the resilience of infrastructure, supply chains, and urban services in developing countries, particularly those in vulnerable regions.

Renee Johnson stands in the middle of her burned home in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, California in October

According to a report published last year by the United Nations Development Programme, maintaining the 1.5C threshold and creating a low-carbon economy would add as much as €12tn to global GDP, compared to a scenario in which the world sticks to current policies and emissions-reduction pledges.

The paper asserting that the 1.5C target is achievable was written by well-respected climate experts and published in a top-ranking journal after extensive peer review.

But it is just one paper; there is still a lot more to learn about our capacity to limit global warming. That is why top scientists are already discussing and debating its findings; their responses will also be published in top journals. That is how scientific research works, and it is why we can trust climate science — and its urgent warnings.

Next year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will publish its own meta-analysis of all of the science related to the 1.5C target, in what promises to be the most comprehensive summary of such

research. But we cannot afford to wait for that analysis before taking action.

The members of the CVF have already committed to doing our part, pledging at last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakech to complete the transition to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible. Our emissions are already among the world’s smallest, but our climate targets are the world’s most ambitious.

But whether the world manages to curb climate change ultimately will depend on the willingness of the largest current and historical emitters of greenhouse gases to fulfill their moral and ethical responsibility to take strong action.

Keeping global temperatures below 1.5C may not yet be a geophysical impossibility. But, to meet the target, we must ensure that it is not treated as a political and economic impossibility, either.

AUGUST: A firefighter tackles a blaze at Vale de Abelha as a further inferno swept through Portugal. Picture: Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty

Loren Legarda, chair of the finance and climate change committees, is a member of the Senate of the Philippines. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.

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