We can do better. We have to be better. In the margins, in the small details, we have been doing some better.
We’ve spent two weeks watching the world’s leaders attempt to dress their repeated failure as success. The much-vaunted agreement on stopping deforestation by 2030 was the diplomatic equivalent of a loin cloth made of two-sheets of bog roll from Poundland. Any idiot knows that if you’re simply planting a sapling to replace an ancient tree that you felled to make way for burgers, the jungle or woodland will not only be unable to absorb as much carbon but will also have released what’s already stored in the ground. In Scotland, The Woodland Trust already oversees a scheme whereby for every tree that you plan to fell, you must show how you will replace it with two and this is clearly insufficient to meet Scotland’s Net Zero targets.
There were just two notable announcements from COP26. The first is that the US and China have agreed to talk directly as soon as next week about what else can be done. Though citizens in Hong Kong and Taiwan may worry about what the world’s two superpowers have agreed behind closed doors, there can be no doubt that without the world’s two biggest polluters coming to some sort of arrangement, emissions will simply not come down. (Though we should always remember that the reason China’s emissions are so high is not so much because of coal-fuelled power stations but because the US and Europe have divested much of their net carbon contributions by having so many consumer products made in places where workers have fewer rights.)
The second announcement was perhaps just as important: the climate talks have shifted from a five-year to an annual cycle, a belated recognition of the urgency of the climate emergency. The next round of talks will be in Egypt and this is significant: the hosts are part of the ‘Global South’, those nations on the frontline of climate crisis who’ve least contributed to the problem.
What’s little understood – and grotesquely, bizarrely – not reported at all is that at current levels of carbon emissions, there will be no-one to welcome in year 2050. Grotesque, because it’s a strange thing to see delegates from over 170 countries meet in a room, surrounded by scientists and activists with first-hand experience of the challenges faced on the ground
choose instead to listen to the oil and gas lobbyists they’ve smuggled into proceedings poorly disguised as ‘civil servants’. Bizarre, because the temperature rises are about more than firestorms in the eastern United States, drought in Africa or once-in-a-century flooding of English counties occurring twice a year over the past six years.
We heard from the Environment Minister of the Maldives that the island nation she calls home will be gone – completely underwater – in just 94 months. Justice demands that we answer her question on whether those of us lucky enough to live in the Global North are willing to give a new home to the half-million people who will have nowhere to live before 2030 – which we all know is the ‘magic’ date for reducing global carbon emissions.
For all the tragedy that will be filling our social media and TV screens in the next few years, the loss of low-lying nations and the imminent need to re-home millions of climate refugees is not the greatest emergency we will have to contend with, tragic though that is going to be. The real emergency is in fact going to affect us directly and yet no-one spoke about it at all during the two week’s of coverage of COP26.
The climate doesn’t just exist in the air between ground and cloud. It’s in the deep ocean currents and it’s in the stratosphere. Life, and the regions of the Earth that make everything we know and love possible, are part of a vast interconnected system that even now is only partly understood. It’s the complexity which makes cause and effect difficult to determine accurately and it’s in that gap where more data is being collected that those who tend to go to Facebook or The Daily Mail for ‘research’ have exploited to the ultimate benefit of the oil-and-gas lobby. As with much in life it makes sense then to ask a physicist.
The study of physics gave Newton a rainbow before it threw him an apple, but in both instances, by intelligently observing what could be studied in other places at other times, a patient scientist can learn much.
The study of our stratosphere has shown that for every 1 degree centigrade in atmospheric temperature, humidity increases by 7%. We assume that this means more rain. It does. But the increase in water vapour, also means that the temperature difference between the polar regions and equator are equalising – and this is very bad. We already know that increases in temperature in the polar regions will bring rising sea levels but what we never seem to talk about is what effect the increase in water vapour does to our air.
The weather that brings sunshine and warmth to those regions producing tomatoes, olives and dates and which encourages the abundance of oats, barley and rice, depends on
changeable seasons. The cycle of seasons is how we are fed and whatever the technology, it’s how we live.
In the British Isles, the stability of our weather is determined by the Gulf Stream: too far north and we bake like the Mediterranean. Too far south and we freeze. While Daily Mail readers may be looking forward to hotter temperatures, it means that countries in the actual Mediterranean are hotter than parts of Africa – and Africa is hotter even still causing migration as food production fails. If instead we cool down, our own growing seasons are affected meaning we have to import more food which would be OK-ish if the rest of the world wasn’t on fire.
The changes we can see now have appeared with less than 1°C rise in temperature. COP26 has failed to deliver an absolute limit on temperature rise of 1.5°C and on current projections, is headed toward 2.7°C. If we stopped emissions now with absolutely no extra carbon then we could keep temperatures at around 1°C or, around 7% increase in humidity. At this level, there is no predicting how erratic the Gulf Stream which provides the British Isles with sufficiently long and warm summers that we can grow crops, will remain but as flooded English towns and clifftop communities storm into the sea, we have a glimpse of what the future holds.
But even this is not the problem.
Water does strange things at the extremes of the planet. Warmed by deep rock compressed to boiling magma, great jets erupt from mud to redistribute nutrients in Yellowstone and Iceland and entertain tourists. Sufficiently cold, it can be frozen in great Antarctic mountains asleep for tens of thousands of years, in drifts compacted a kilometre deep. But at altitude, water is far more interesting because above the clouds, it plays with a molecular chemistry set which includes sulphate aerosols from pollution, volcanoes and so on, attract the water molecules like a sponge, destroying ozone. Experiments by Professor James Anderson of Harvard University were being reported as far back as 2012: this is not a new discovery but we simply aren’t addressing it.
Ozone. We thought we’d solved the problem of the hole over the Antarctic decades ago by banning CFC-generating fridges which manufacturers told was near-impossible. The urgency with which we met that issue was largely the result of public pressure.
Perhaps that’s why so few people know or even want to think about this never-discussed ‘new’ ozone problem. Once the humidity increases, the subtle chemical processes that produce ozone cease to happen and once ozone ceases to be replenished, the layer which protects
us from cosmic radiation fades and life perishes. This happens at 2°C. Two, not two-point-seven.
Ambitions of reducing emissions by 2050 or, 2060 in China or even, 2070 in India, are a nonsense. We won’t be there and neither will our children if we don’t act now. Forget saving pandas and polar bears, forget coral reefs and bumble bees. Fast fashion and fast food will be more than a past mistake we should have stopped years ago. Life will not be possible. All life, all ambition, all our dreams and everything that we strived for will be finished.
Living on the Fife coast, I had the luxury of being able to imagine until recently that in Scotland, we had more time than elsewhere on the planet. Idealistically, I saw that Scotland’s position in the temperate part of Europe with an abundance of Europe’s renewables potential and over 90% of the UK’s fresh water, gave us advantages that would in the coming decades be the envy even of our neighbours in England.
If COP26 showed us anything, it reinforced the idea that Scotland is part of a wider story. We are not a nation alone. We were hosts to the world and they saw for themselves the corruption that creeps out of the festering sore that is Westminster and how it constrains our efforts to curtail our desire to add to global efforts.
There is still much to give hope, perhaps because we are better than we imagine. For the last twenty years, the deployment of solar arrays globally has surpassed the International Energy Agency’s predictions, particularly in poorer nations. We have been making efforts but not quick enough.
This week, poorer nations were denied just $100 billion per year in aid to offset the damage of climate change already caused. They were promised this money at previous climate summits. By 2030, the value needed to help the poorer nations will be $5 trillion per year. For comparison, in 2009, governments found $13 trillion between them to save banks, the very institutions which are even now funding the oil, gas and coal projects that will kill us thanks to the craven cowardice of politicians from the world’s wealthiest nations.
There are none more cowardly or more craven than the Tories. They simper and mewl around the fecund finances of the world’s big companies, somehow believing that new technology, yet to be developed, let alone deployed, will be enough to allow them to carry on as normal. Carbon capture does not work; the technology is still in development and not yet deployed. Carbon offsets and trading schemes do not work; someone always cheats or simply ignores the system. Carbon Net Zero schemes also don’t work because someone, somewhere is having to make the plastic tat we’re still buying as Christmas
presents. But the Tories and their oil-industry friends seem to believe that if they repeat the same rubbish long enough, we might eventually believe it’s true. At some point, they are going to have to accept that in this scenario, the truth is all we have to protect them and us.
Which brings me back to Scotland and more precisely, Cambo. Beyond complaints that the Tories lied in 2014 and that we always had that resource, it must stay beneath the sea. Don’t be complaining that it’s a ‘reserved matter’ and therefore, there’s nothing we can do about it. Cambo is at sea. At some point, that oil resource has to come ashore. New support assets will require planning permission; existing support infrastructure can be taxed on a sliding scale from zero until the pips squeak. Stopping Cambo takes guts.
Enough with the blue hydrogen blah blah blah. Green hydrogen is extracted from sea water using renewable energy. It’s such an obvious solution as a stop-gap in our energy infrastructure, we all seem to have forgotten we did the experiment at school. But, of course, converting sea water to hydrogen using renewable energy cuts out the cancer of oil-industry middlemen which is why they complain. After years of buying our politics into stalled inaction, they should be glad we aren’t hanging them from their rigs.
What we need now is a commitment that no Scottish resource will be used to refinance financial institutions from taxpayers for the loss of ‘orphaned’ assets (which are those investments placed in things that can no longer be deployed). We could also introduce a Land Use Tax which affixes a value per square metre on all new hydrocarbon assets developed within Scottish waters and on land. Mapping and satellite technologies have come a long way and besides, the licenses define the boundaries of extraction.
Anything is possible if we have the will. Now what we have to do is discover just how much we want our children to live. The time for talk is done: now is the time to fight.