For those unable to distinguish weather from climate, the cold weather over the US seems to disprove global warming. Those who want to bury their heads in the sand listen to such flippant asides, while others do the hard work on negotiating climate treaties and deploying low-carbon systems. As the New Year passes, how do we deserve to be graded on our success last year in dealing with this planetary threat?
We have five exam topics to tackle. What is the climate telling us? How are we doing on developing climate policies? What progress is being made on developing and using climate-friendly technologies? Are emissions declining enough? And how about coping with the already-inevitable consequences?
Worldwide, 2017 is set to be the second- or third-hottest year on record, among 2016, 2015 and 2014, which follow in ominous sequence. Sea-level rises are accelerating as Greenland melts.
Rising worldwide temperatures mask more severe local changes. As climate models predict, the Arctic is warming much faster than the world as a whole, heating up more and faster than it has for at least 1500 years. The loss of sea ice may have allowed cold Arctic air to move further south, causing the current US freezing.
The Mediterranean and Levant have been suffering drought, particularly in spring and summer. From 2011 to now, California has been hit by one of its worst recorded dry spells, contributing to worsening wildfires. And the most recent studies suggest that, as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere increase, we will get more warming than previously thought. Overall, with climate change proceeding perhaps a little more dangerously than forecast, I will score this 4/10.
Climate negotiations are proceeding along the framework of the Paris Agreement of 2016, though the impending withdrawal of the US casts a cloud. In any case, the provisions of Paris would cut temperature rises by an insufficient 1 degree Celsius by 2100. These provisions are non-binding, and for most countries, very vague. Paris makes some progress on moving away from the failed Kyoto approach of setting targets for cutting emissions with no specifics on how this will be done. The use of a carbon tax has proved its worth in the UK, but is still not inspiring the worldwide adoption it deserves. So, I rank our policy efforts generously at 4/10.
The brightest spot is on clean energy. Renewable power has become dramatically more competitive, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia leading the way on attracting low-cost solar power, and the countries around the North Sea doing the same for offshore wind. The UK has almost eliminated coal from active power generation plans, while China looks set to have installed 50 gigawatts of solar power in 2017 and has boosted efforts to converting coal heating to gas. Most major car manufacturers are offering electric models.
On the negative side, electric vehicle take-up remains tiny and the worldwide share of fossil fuel electricity has hardly budged. Nuclear power has suffered setbacks with US plants overrunning their costs, while carbon capture and storage has moved ahead but has to accelerate sharply to scale up by 50 times over the next 20 years. So I score our efforts in this area at 7/10 – mostly based on future potential.
After three years of flat global emissions, 2017 will see a rise of about 2 per cent, led by China, with even the EU’s output falling just 0.2 per cent. The atmosphere does not care about clever new technologies and slick green press releases – it cares only about carbon dioxide coming out of chimneys and exhaust pipes. Too many countries have blundered into a “renewables plus coal” energy mix. We need emissions to fall at least 3 by per cent per year, not rise. So our efforts on tangibly reducing greenhouse gases are rated 3/10, on the hope 2017 is a blip.
The hardest thing to grade is our ability to adapt to climate change, as disasters such as wildfires, storms, droughts and floods are likely to become either common or more damaging or both. Texas’s energy complex recovered quite quickly from the 1.5 metres of water that hurricane Harvey dumped on Houston. But neglected Puerto Rico is barely limping back after hurricane Maria: half of customers lack electricity three months later. If this is the case for a US territory, imagine how things would look in Bangladesh.
The response to the refugee crises which engulfed Syria and Libya is not encouraging. Though evidence linking aspects of the Syrian conflict to drought is unclear, it is suggestive and we can expect more vulnerable or misgoverned states to struggle with future climate deterioration. In the face of what should have been a manageable influx, the wealthy EU, US and Australia seek to make themselves into fortresses against migrants. It is not pretty to picture the fallout of a major climatic disaster, the flooding of a fertile delta or drying up of the monsoon. So our climate adaptability gets 2/10.
An overall score of 20/50 is a failing grade on any scale. Good progress in clean energy development needs to combine with better policy to bring down emissions in 2018. In this high-stakes exam, there are no re-takes.
Robin M. Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis