We have twelve years to save the planet. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have less than two decades to make the significant strides necessary to avoid catastrophic and truly irreversible impacts of global climate change accelerated by our use of fossil fuels.
That is just one of the headlines coming from the 24th annual meeting of the United National Framework convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) taking place in Katowice, Poland (COP24). The event has put the world’s biggest challenge front and center once again. Though climate change and its impacts need little help grabbing headlines, the conference is a good reminder of the global community’s shared responsibility for altering the unsustainable and catastrophic trajectory on which we currently find ourselves.
I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This
Without question, the news on global climate continues triggering alarms. Energy demand jumped in 2017 after years of remaining relatively flat, and efficiency levels dropped. The combination of the two lead to a dramatic spike in global greenhouse gas emissions despite renewable energy output rising 6 percent compared to coal and natural gas demand rising one and three percent, respectively. Add to that the fact that the last four years have been the hottest since record keeping began, this year is shaping up to best them all. In short, we’re failing. Badly.
Adding insult to injury was the failure of COP24 participants to adopt the IPCC’s landmark scientific report briefly mentioned above. The report, released in October, shows just how perilously close the world is to destroying itself. It concludes the world is on track to shatter the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold that will trigger irreversible impacts of global climate change. COP24 was prepared to welcome the report and its findings, which would have stressed the urgency of the situation and continued the momentum of the 2015 Paris Agreement. But the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait objected and demanded the report only be “noted” instead of “welcomed.” The result is that text referring to the pivotal report has been dropped altogether.
However, failure to adopt the report does not diminish its importance in the eyes of the rest of the global community. Unfortunately it highlight’s America’s continued retreat from global leadership and its current trajectory of weakness that began when it announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Given the withdrawal’s basis in faulty logic, half-truths, and misleading statements, it comes as no surprise to find the global community taking the United States less seriously on everything.
Now For the Good News
While the world’s largest economy and greenhouse gas emitter by historic standards sits idly by, the rest of the world continues dealing with reality as it is. There are good reasons for hope and optimism. Earlier this year the European Union announced its commitment to 32 percent renewable energy target by 2030 under a legally binding framework. Non-OECD countries (essentially those not deemed “developed”) have taken the lead in renewable energy installations. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s annual Climatescope, developing countries are bringing more new renewable energy generation than they are fossil fuel-based generation and outpacing developed countries to boot.
And for those who feel the transition to a more sustainable energy future is not happening fast enough (this writer is one of them), a recent study from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment concluded that almost 140 countries could aggressively transition to a 100 percent renewables-based electricity system. Doing so would require an almost unprecedented level of infrastructure investment, but it also has the potential to create millions of jobs, save money, and make serious progress on the challenge of climate change. What’s more, this aggressive transition would pair nicely with the global retreat from coal-fired generation. Carbon Tracker Institute recently documented coal’s dire global predicament with its “Powering Down Coal” report and interactive web portal. Demonstrating coal’s difficult road ahead: 42 percent of the global stock of coal-fired generation has been unprofitable this year, a trend which will reach 72 percent by 2040 and one that is consistent with the current reality for US-based coal and nuclear plants.
In fact, coal plant retirement in the United States in 2018 has only been outpaced by retirements in 2015, which is a large reason why carbon emissions in the United States continue to decline.
Rounding out reasons to be hopeful, I’d be remiss if I did not highlight that Maersk, the global shipping giant, announced its plan to be carbon emission free by 2050. This would be a tremendous step forward for an industry responsible for just over 2 percent of global emissions alone, and that powers itself by burning bunker fuel, some the dirtiest on the planet. Lastly, though it seems like a pittance compared to the monumental task before us, Patagonia’s recent decision to give the proceeds of its $10 million tax cut to environmental groups, underscores that if we all do our bit, we just might have a chance.
First, the important work done at the annual UN climate conference must be stressed and kept in the spotlight year-round. Sign up for newsletters and alerts to keep up with the topic and see the very real impact we are having on our environment.
Second, keep perspective. The Trump administration’s position on climate change grabs many headlines and camera flashes. For the second time this year, the entire world audibly laughed at the United States. (The first was at the UN General Assembly in September) But the truth is, there is plenty going on behind the scenes (as there has been for years) to advance real solutions and we should do what we can to be aware of them and support them.
Third, when a major player such as the United States cedes leadership on a matter of global importance, it underscores the need for everyone to get involved! Just because the federal government is currently too weak and cowardly to take this issue seriously doesn’t prevent others from stepping in to fill the void. Therefore, get involved! Look all around you at what’s going on at levels big and small. Draw inspiration. Throw support behind big names, and throw your time and energy at something in your backyard. Yes, the splashy headline stuff is important and necessary, but so is the next person seeing you do your bit so that they might be inspired to do theirs. And so on. And so on. Get to it. Time’s a wasting.