We were first warned about C02 emissions in 1851. Why didn't we listen?

Our planet is 1.1°C warmer than it was almost 200 years ago. Yet, it's not too late to change course

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Carbon dioxide levels are the highest ever in human history.

As shocking as this moment is, it should arrive as no surprise. We have passed plenty of warning signs on the road that has led us here.

The first red flag was raised by Eunice Foote in 1851. Consigned to the footnotes of history until only recently, Foote conducted an experiment which concluded that: “An atmosphere of [carbon dioxide] would give to our Earth a high temperature.”

Plenty of warming warnings have followed over the next 151 years.

In 1965, a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science concluded that: “Pollutants have altered on a global scale the carbon dioxide content of the air and the lead concentrations in ocean waters and human populations.”

And just last year, the mission statement from Cop26 in Glasgow reminded us of the importance of keeping 1.5°C alive.

By failing to heed these distress signals, our planet is now 1.1°C warmer than it was in the 1800s.

In 2021, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions skyrocketed to 36.3 billion tonnes – higher than they’ve ever been. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now at nearly 412 parts per million and rising. That’s a 47 per cent increase since the beginning of the Industrial Age.

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For almost 150 years, Eunice Foote's work was ignored and her caution dismissed

Getting back on track was already challenging. Now, according to the UN’s latest data, carbon emissions must drop 7.6 per cent per year through to 2030 to keep temperatures from exceeding 1.5°C. We have less than a decade to do this.

The Middle East has a critical role to play in forging a climate-resilient future. According to a new report published by the World Government Summit (WGS) Organisation and Oliver Wyman, the region needs to reduce its projected greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 42 per cent by 2030.

The WGS report also highlighted three sectors as key to reducing the Middle East’s emissions. Energy generation accounts for 39 per cent of all regional emissions, while industry contributes 21 per cent and transport systems emit 11 per cent of the region’s GHGs, according to the report.

These findings are consistent around the globe. And they point to a key insight: policy and investments are not keeping pace with industry. If we are to decarbonise the atmosphere in time, this must be our starting point.

In renewable energy and electrification solutions, we have the potential to reduce 75 per cent of the world’s energy-related carbon emissions – that’s according to research from the International Renewable Energy Agency.

The question must be asked: if we have this viable technology ready to deploy in the name of decarbonisation, why are the policies and investments not keeping up with the demands of industry?

Without agile policymaking frameworks in place, the demands of industry will continue to eclipse the needs of people and planet.

Without a robust investment strategy for the research and development and the talent needed to further enhance and scale our renewable solutions, we will not decarbonise fast enough to build a climate-resilient pathway for frontline communities.

Eunice Newton Foote. Wikicommons

On the other hand, with the right policies and investment commitments in place, economies can work with international partners to accelerate the diversification of their energy and industrial mixes.

Thanks to its agile and resilient-focused leadership, the UAE is currently experiencing the benefits of such an approach, with its non-oil economy recording its highest level of output in three years.

The UAE is also engaged in ongoing discussions with other major economies to leverage each other’s knowledge and strengths to scale new renewable solutions, such as hydrogen and clean energy projects with Germany, while at the same time helping to build renewable energy capacities in developing countries – from the Caribbean to the Pacific.

At home, we recognise that we must also more effectively manage the demand-side of the energy nexus.

Doing so will help not only mitigate but reduce carbon emissions, according to analysis presented by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), following the Sixth Assessment Report.

The IPCC suggests that between 5 and 30 per cent of annual global GHG emissions from end-use sectors are avoidable by 2050, if we combine behavioural changes with demand side mitigation. That’s compared with 2050 projections of two scenarios consistent with current national policies until 2020.

The IPCC goes on to state that more efficient end-use conversions can improve services while reducing the need for upstream energy by 45 per cent.

We can achieve this through changes in the built environment, by repurposing and building more sustainable infrastructure. Doing so would lead to the creation of smart cities, the co-location of jobs and housing and the reallocation of street space for more active mobility.

A girl folds a blanket at her house rooftop near the Thermal Power Corporation plant in Dadri, India, in April. AFP

The above paragraph may remind you of Expo 2020 Dubai. Indeed, it is not surprising that the recommendations made by the IPCC on mitigating carbon emissions can be found are met by what has since become Expo City Dubai and announced as the host venue for Cop28 in 2023.

It was designed to leave a legacy of sustainability and put people at the heart of the built environment. And by hosting the UN’s climate change conference in two years, Expo City Dubai will not only continue the theme of connecting minds, creating the future, it can show that people must be at the heart of the fight against climate change, that people are at the heart of society, and that people are the reason we must constantly strive to reduce our carbon emissions.

Let’s just be clear on this point: the planet will survive, we won’t. Earth will heal, repair and recover long after we are gone. It is our future that we hold in our hands, not the planet’s.

When Foote captured carbon dioxide and warm air in two separate glass cylinders in 1851, she noted that the cylinder filled with carbon dioxide warmed even more, and, once removed from the light, “it was many times as long in cooling” than the cylinder with warm air.

As I quoted at the start, Foote warned that an atmosphere of “that gas” – CO2 to you and me today – would result in a “very high temperature” for Earth.

For almost 150 years, her work was ignored and her caution dismissed. I wonder how long it would have taken if her experiment had outlined the potentially devastating impact “that gas” would have on human health, as well as on the planet. And I wonder if she would have been ignored at all, if her name was Eric rather than Eunice.

Published: June 29, 2022, 2:00 PM
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