The recent news that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are continuing to rise is a sobering reminder of the fact that the rhetoric associated with action on the global climate emergency is not being matched with meaningful action. The press release from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) covers not just carbon dioxide, but also methane and nitrous oxide. The cumulative effect, total radiative forcing, has increased by 43% in less than three decades. This year’s conference of the parties COP25, hosted in Madrid, followed on from COP24 in merely kicking the can down the road for yet another year rather than prompting the far more robust responses which are necessary. The Paris COP21 meeting in 2015 gave rise to a range of commitments around the world which are yet, if the WMO statistics are any guide, to translate into sufficient action to have anything like enough positive impact. A small crumb of comfort may be found in other news in the same week that this year looks set to see the largest fall in electricity production from coal on record.
Inevitably, a move away from fossil fuels will impact on the interests of those businesses the profits of which depend on the sector remaining economically viable. The significance of this economic driver is multiplied when fossil fuels are at the heart of a national or regional economy. Texas is perhaps the archetypal example of such places; inspiration for the 80s television programme Dallas, replete with Stetsons, shoulder-pads, wheeler-dealing and casual treachery. It remains a cliché, but one firmly rooted in reality. Travelling across the west of the state is more reminiscent of Mordor than the wide-open spaces of Hollywood Westerns, with enormous vehicles, nodding donkeys, gas flares and trailer parks for the workers as far as the eye can see. But, even here in the home of oil, there are further crumbs of comfort. Large-scale wind farms such as that in Mesquite Creek opened by Mars in 2015, which produces electricity equivalent to the demand of all their 70 US factories (there is a sister installation in the UK), can also be seen across parts of the state and next door in New Mexico is an innovative community of ‘earth ship’ inhabitants. There is also a refreshing degree of honesty about the limitations of the recycling infrastructure which we could learn from. Closer to home, the Netherlands’ highest court has upheld a ruling requiring the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% of 1990 levels by the end of 2020, a target which sadly will be almost impossible to achieve.
Environmental issues seemed to be more prominent in the UK’s recent general election campaign than in recent hustings, and the UK is set to host next year’s COP26 meeting in Glasgow. Hopefully our politicians, whatever the distractions of the UK’s departure from the EU, will take a real lead on the issues to justify the apparent global lead implied by the declaration of a climate emergency earlier in the year and the extension of the national climate ambition to net-zero by 2050. Even motoring journalist and long-standing public climate sceptic Jeremy Clarkson appears also to have conceded that global warming is real, and a cause for genuine concern. But has there been a real shift? Mark Carney, moving on from the Bank of England to a role as United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance, has warned that the world will face irreversible heating unless firms shift their priorities soon. Analysis by a leading pension fund, surely the epitome of an organisation which has to think over the long term, has shown that the cumulative effect of the policies of all companies committed to taking action, they are consistent with warming of nearly 4oC, a level which will be catastrophic for human society and natural ecosystems around the globe. As I type this, Australia is burning.