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 moot. 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” in developing countries. 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 with people like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro (president-elect of Brazil) in power), 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 to present day Japan and Australia combined). Plus, climate-change deniers like Trump or Bolsonaro do not make it easier or any more likely that their countries will actually strive toward a reduction in CO2 emissions. In addition, 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 little to no effect on global emissions, especially 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 do not envy future generations as they will be faced with unprecedented levels of weather extremes and disasters (storms, floods, etc.), shifts in agriculture (failing harvests and traditional crops that no longer grow under changed climatic conditions), as well as increased economic and climate-based migrations (more displaced people and more socio-economic conflicts). We all know what should be done (a significant reduction in CO2 emissions), but as this appears increasingly unlikely in the foreseeable future, we need to:

  1. take appropriate measures to prepare for climate change and mitigate the effects as much as possible, 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 oblige 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 forest fires, flash floods, etc.). This can happen either through existing mechanisms (e.g., an increase of the price for CO2 emission certificates) or through tariffs that penalise products that use a high a mount of CO2 to manufacture and/or transport to the consumer (e.g., do people in the US really need to drink bottled water from the French Alps?). Also, people like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro who actively sabotage efforts to contain climate change and deny scientific fact should be indicted and jailed as their actions could lead to the biggest loss of human (and animal) life in history.

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.

It would be immensely helpful if people did not elect right-wing demagogues into office. I understand that this is becoming increasingly difficult given that in many countries people are left to choose between what amounts to pestilence and cholera, but while pestilence is nearly always fatal, cholera is just a temporary and treatable annoyance, so let’s choose the lesser evil.