Climate change – the sad reality

This will be a short post to share a fact about the politics of climate change which, in my view, renders current efforts in Europe to achieve the 1.5° warming goal mute. With the latest climate summit underway in Katowice, Poland, there is currently a lot of information in the traditional media outlets with various statistics and percentages, but none of them really talk about the numbers that matter. The global climate does not care about indicators like “reductions of CO2 emissions per GDP units in purchasing power parity” which is commonly used to measure “progress”. The global climate only cares about absolute emission numbers. So let’s look at those with one simple graph.

Data for panels (a) and (b) was taken from the current IEA Highlights report on CO2 emissions from fuel combustion (2018). Data for panel (c) used the Indian/Chinese government targets of a 33/60% reduction in CO2 emissions per GDP unit (PPP) with regard to 2005 values (which corresponds to a 20/24% reduction with regard to 2016 values) and combined it with an average annual GDP (PPP) growth rate for India/China of 5.4/6.0% p.a. between 2016 and 2030, based on an extrapolation of existing World Bank GDP growth data.

What this figure, and in particular panel (c), tells you is that if all 36 OECD countries would reduce their current (2016) fuel-based CO2 emissions by 50% until 2030 (which is of course unrealistic to start with), then this reduction would be outweighed by the projected increase in Chinese emissions alone (based on an extrapolated economic growth of 6% p.a. between 2016 and 2030 and current government targets on emission reduction per GDP unit of 24% over 2016 levels). Using the same method and an estimated annual growth of 5.4% (GDP, PPP) in combination with a 20% reduction over 2016 emissions per GDP unit (PPP), also India would blow an additional 1500 Mt of CO2 into the atmosphere by 2030 (equivalent of present day Japan and Australia combined). Plus, climate-change deniers like Trump or Bolsonaro (president-elect of Brazil) do not make it easier or any more likely that their countries will actually strive toward a reduction in CO2 emissions. Obviously, also the OECD will not be able to reduce emissions by 50%, especially while the USA continues to sabotage existing accords and climate goals, and countries like Australia, Japan, or Korea continue to increase the burning of coal for electricity generation (increases of 26%, 48%, and 234%, respectively, since 1990 – for comparison: European OECD countries reduced coal burning by 40% on average since 1990) .

What is my point you may ask? Well, I find it increasingly difficult to tell friends or family to reduce car use or air travel if this will have absolutely no effect on global emissions, considering that the main polluters operate with impunity and government targets that will lead to an 80% increase in CO2 emissions by 2030 and would thus outweigh even the most optimistic CO2 savings in the so-called developed world.

How should we proceed? Well, given the current situation of world politics, I can only say that I am glad to die before the shit really hits the fan (if you excuse my French). We all know what should be done ideally (a significant reduction in CO2 emissions), but as this is not going to happen, we need to:

  1. take measures to prepare for rises in sea level and temperature as well as shifts in precipitation patterns (which will inevitably lead to more displaced people and thus conflict), and
  2. introduce mechanisms that hold those financially responsible who are the greatest contributors to global CO2 emissions, who are climate change deniers, or who are planning with further emission increases.

Unfortunately, the powers that be only attribute value to things if that value can be measured in monetary units. Therefore, we must force the main polluters  to pay for the damage they cause globally (e.g., the cost of relocating entire populations when their regions become uninhabitable due to rising sea levels or temperatures, the cost of increasing forest fires, flash floods, etc.). For starters, people like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro (current president-elect of Brazil) should be jailed for denying scientific fact and actively escalating climate change (and not be elected into power in the first place). Non-cooperative countries should be penalised with tariffs, such that they need to decide whether they want to accept the tariffs (which will lead to a reduction in GDP and thus emissions) or avoid tariffs by using less polluting technology. Of course this would require a consensus of the main economic players which is non-existent at the moment. But even if a block like the EU could throw its economic and political weight behind an idea like this, it could have a significant impact.

A first step is to not elect right-wing demagogues, although I understand that this is becoming increasingly difficult given that people often only have a choice between pestilence and cholera in many countries. Still, while pestilence is nearly always fatal, cholera is just annoying but treatable, so you can always choose the lesser evil.