Climate change: facing up to even less convenient truths

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defense at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

It is an axiom among diplomats that the longer you leave problems to fester, the fewer options you are left with, and the few remaining are ever harder and more expensive to implement. I was reminded of this as, like so many of us, I watched dozens of heads of state line up in Sharm El-Sheikh for the traditional family portrait that marks the opening of yet another United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) global gathering to tackle climate change.

During the short 12 months since COP26 in Glasgow, the planet has been communicating its climate agony as never before. The last eight years have been the warmest on record. This past summer, numerous European countries recorded new heat records as, even in northern Europe, temperatures climbed above 40°C. Forests in France, Portugal, Spain and Greece burned, as did houses in the east end of London. Railway lines buckled, nuclear power plants ran out of cooling water and supply chains ground to a halt. With Europe experiencing its worst drought in 500 years, satellite pictures of France showed a landscape looking more like the outer reaches of the Sahel than the verdant fertile pastures that were once so familiar.

This past year, sea levels rose at twice the rate of the 1990s. A BBC journalist visiting Svalbard in the Arctic Circle reported that sea warming there was taking place at four times the global average and that houses were increasingly at risk from ground subsidence and avalanches. Meanwhile, Pakistan and Nigeria experienced flooding that extended over half their territories and East Africa was gripped by a prolonged drought that exposed its populations to hunger and starvation. Last September, Cuba and Florida suffered one of the most powerful hurricanes in recent years. In Basra, Iraq, summer temperatures got into the upper 50°C bracket, while cities like Cape Town in South Africa began to experience water shortages. According to the UN, Jordan has now run out of domestically-sourced water altogether.

We have […] been increasing – rather than reducing – the overall level of carbon emissions

What is even more worrying than these more frequent and extreme manifestations of climate change, affecting so many different parts of the world at the same time, is the global community’s diminishing ability to do anything serious about it. The latest report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in October, revealed that there is no longer a viable pathway to limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This will come as a shock to climate activists who have long campaigned to make 1.5°C the agreed target of the global community at a time when many industrialised nations were pushing for a 2% target.

Those activists failed to have 1.5°C adopted at the Kyoto and Copenhagen COP meetings but finally succeeded in Paris in 2015. They were helped by the coalition of small island states and leaders from the Maldives, Barbados and the Marshall Islands pointing out that, for states where 80% of the land is only one metre above sea level, keeping to 1.5°C is a matter of life and death if they are not to sink beneath the ocean. This cause was further boosted by another report from the IPCC, published in 2018, that stressed that the half-degree difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of global warming would produce major impacts: 480mn more people would be exposed to extreme heat, millions more would see livestock and agricultural land destroyed and an ice-free Arctic would be a once-in-a-decade rather than a once-in-a-century phenomenon. It’s little wonder that the COP26 slogan was ‘keep 1.5 alive’. This level of global warming was the maximum that the global community could afford to keep climate change manageable and avoid the negative feedback loops that would produce the truly catastrophic scenarios.

Certainly, there has been progress. In Glasgow, nearly all the participating nations declared a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), or an individual carbon dioxide reduction target, with the overall aim of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century. In the case of India and China, this may be two decades and one decade, respectively, later than the 2050 deadline, but it does mean that, whereas in 2019 only 16% of the global economy was covered by net-zero pledges, today that figure has risen to 70%. At the same time, if all of these national commitments are implemented, which seems highly unlikely given the large number of countries involved and levels of financial aid for the poorer countries now estimated at $2tn a year, we will still end up at 1.8°C above pre-industrial levels. So, exceeding 1.5°C now seems unavoidable. It could still have been achieved had more radical action been taken immediately after the Paris COP seven years ago. But we have since been increasing – rather than reducing – the overall level of carbon emissions.

The increased level of resources we need to devote to tackling climate change will have to be divided more equitably

The lull during the months of COVID-19 lockdowns proved only temporary and the war in Ukraine has led to disruptions in gas and oil supplies, as well as rapidly rising prices that have pushed countries back to burning coal, even if only temporarily. We must hope that in the long run, higher prices for fossil fuels will be an incentive for countries to speed up the transition to renewable energy and green technologies, but the short-term reality is that fossil fuel use will not diminish if gas is increasingly branded as a transition source of energy rather than a polluting fuel in its own right. Climate scientists have estimated that for the planet to heat up by 1.5°C, an additional 2,890bn tonnes of carbon would need to be emitted into the atmosphere vis-à-vis the pre-industrial baseline. By 2019, already 2.39tn tonnes had been emitted, leaving ‘only’ 500bn more to irreversibly exceed the 1.5°C limit. As around 40bn tonnes are being added every year, there is no sign of the radical reductions in emissions or compensatory removal of carbon from the atmosphere that would be necessary to ‘keep 1.5 alive’.

Climate activists gathering at the COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh will no doubt be reluctant to admit defeat and abandon a target that they have cherished for so long. But we need to face a new reality of a rapidly warming planet and the higher costs of responding to, and recovering from, extreme weather events. Keeping to 1.8°C rather than sliding towards 2°C, let alone beyond, has to be the new goal. So, COP27 has to come up with a more balanced strategy between mitigation and adaptation. This strategy would encompass a radical reduction in carbon emissions and equipping the planet to deal more effectively with the climate emergencies and extreme weather events that will inevitably shape the decades to come. The increased level of resources we need to devote to tackling climate change will have to be divided more equitably across these two main lines of effort. Climate activists need to stop seeing adaptation efforts as an acknowledgement of the failure of mitigation or as a licence to carry on polluting, but as the necessary corollary to mitigation in making the planet sustainable and inhabitable. Mitigation and adaptation must go hand in hand.

Three priorities stand out for future mitigation efforts.

If we get into a complicated discussion about how much is owned by whom for which precise level of proven damage and when, the whole momentum of climate finance could slow down

The first is to have a comprehensive global roadmap to reach net-zero by 2050 to at least contain some of the damage from global warming. This means a UN-led reporting and assessment effort to make sure countries declare their carbon emissions honestly and accurately. The poorer countries will also need massively more financial help from the richer countries to make the energy transition. At the Copenhagen COP in 2009, they were promised $100bn a year in transition funding, but by 2021, this figure had not been met. Now the transition costs have been revised upwards to trillions at a time when the richer countries are struggling with inflation, higher energy costs and paying off the debts incurred in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. So, money will remain contentious and it may be less forthcoming if the COP in Egypt gets embroiled in a politically charged debate about ‘loss and damage’ compensation for historical polluting by the richer countries. There may well be an element of justice and fairness in this debate, but if we get into a complicated discussion about how much is owned by whom for which precise level of proven damage and when, the whole momentum of climate finance could slow down. Meanwhile, China and India need to come under pressure to accept the 2050 net-zero target. An internationally agreed system of carbon taxation and pricing would also be of help – something for the G20 to take up at its meeting in Indonesia this week.

In second place, ongoing high levels of carbon emissions make it imperative to take more carbon out of the atmosphere, something that scientists call ‘negative emissions’. This does not apply only to carbon gas but to methane and soot as well. Mindful of this, China has already announced at the beginning of the COP27 its intention to plant 2mn trees over the next decade. Climate activists will also be encouraged by Lula’s victory in the Brazilian elections and the prospect that he will put a stop to the continuing deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Still, more is needed, especially in the development of cheaper and more effective technologies for carbon capture and storage to accompany coal and gas power generation. Transferring these technologies to developing countries, which will continue to rely on fossil fuels long after the richer countries have switched to clean energy, will also need a coherent plan.

The third is solar geo-engineering. This is not an easy or popular topic, as it implies that we will start playing God with the universe. Yet, the need to cool the planet rapidly may well mean that the UN and bodies like the G7 and G20 need to start considering when and under which conditions, rules, and approval and assessment processes solar geo-engineering should be initiated. We do not want individual countries, such as China, taking the law into their own hands before the risks and the likely benefits and impact on the wider global community have been thoroughly investigated by scientists.

The EU’s Strategic Compass issued last March […] lists climate change in its joint threat assessment

Yet, given that it will probably take at least a decade to develop and test the space-based technologies to perform solar geo-engineering, the time to start the ethical, legal and technical discussion is now, particularly as ongoing carbon emissions continue to worsen the problem. Solar geo-engineering mainly involves the firing of sulphate particles into the stratosphere to block the rays of the Sun or deflect them away from the Earth. Once started, this process may well need to be continued for decades or even centuries to have a lasting effect. But to what extent will solar geo-engineering reduce the need to limit carbon emissions? Which risks or side effects does it involve? How much would it cost and who would pay? Under which authority would it be carried out? These are questions that need research and to be on the agenda of future COPs.

At the same time, adaptation now needs more concerted attention. Recent extreme weather events have demonstrated the lack of resilience, planning and response capabilities that prevent many countries from avoiding the worst outcomes. The security and military community is becoming increasingly involved in the debate. NATO has given climate change prominent space in its most recent Strategic Concept, adopted at the Madrid summit last June, and proclaimed its ambition to become the leading organisation in addressing security implications of climate change. The EU’s Strategic Compass issued last March also lists climate change in its joint threat assessment and devotes a large part of its strategy to disaster response and resilience-building operations combining its civilian and military resources. Yet, the effort needs to be global rather than regional and the UN needs to come up with a comprehensive climate adaptation strategy that sets priorities and requests specific capability contributions from member states and regional organisations. Those launching ‘build back better’ programmes to improve their supply chains and critical infrastructure in the wake of the pandemic need to see how they can extend these projects and investments to their neighbours, as with the EU to Ukraine and the Western Balkans or the US to Latin America.

There are several actions the military can take to help countries cope with extreme weather events. One is investing in water tanker aircraft to fight forest fires. The hot summer in Europe showed that there was a shortage of these, forcing EU member states to constantly ask their neighbours for assistance. The European Commission has proposed to build a common water tanker fleet with assured access for its member states. The UN and other regional organisations, such as the African Union or ECOWAS in Africa, could copy this model and station water carriers at airfields close to forests or heavily vegetated areas.

It is time to talk about adaptation and bring the security community in from the cold

Another idea is to pre-position stocks of humanitarian rescue equipment and relief supplies, such as tents, clothing and medicines, in areas that are especially prone to extreme weather events, for example, storm surges, flooding, hurricanes or fires. Western military forces could conduct more regular exercises with their counterparts in Africa, Asia and Latin America to improve coordination and interoperability in responding to natural disasters. Military-police cooperation is especially important here. In the Caribbean five years ago, we saw how hurricanes could rapidly lead to a breakdown in law and order with widespread looting, prison escapes and the hijacking of food, water and relief supplies by criminal gangs.

Western militaries can also help with emergency evacuations, airdropping supplies, building camps for displaced persons, protecting relief supply chains and providing security for humanitarian workers. Looking more to the long term, the satellite tracking capabilities of Western intelligence services and military establishments can help the more vulnerable and poorer countries with early warning and predictive modelling of climate trends, speed and impacts. The EU has recently completed its Copernicus constellation of Earth observation satellites and this capability can record changes in ocean temperatures, as well as phenomena like desertification on land. Copernicus’ climate-related data can be shared with the UN and the constellation linked to the US and other satellite tracking systems to provide all the 194 countries in the world with a reliable and accessible climate monitoring system. As Western military forces test and procure more zero-carbon green technologies, such as solar or wind-powered camps or battery-operated vehicles, and learn how to consume less fuel, they can share these proven technologies with their military partners in Africa and Asia and encourage Western defence companies to conclude co-production or licencing agreements to facilitate the roll-out of the equipment.

Finally, the military can help countries to carry out detailed vulnerability assessments to help pinpoint areas where resilience work is most urgent or can be most cost-effective. At future COP meetings, beginning with the COP28 in Abu Dhabi next year, participating states should be required not just to present their updated NDCs but also a National Resilience Enhancement Plan, which can then be vetted for credibility and feasibility by the UN, its development agencies, the World Bank and international financial institutions, as well as security institutions willing to provide concrete advice and capacity-building such as the EU and NATO.

In summary, with 1.5°C rapidly disappearing in the rearview mirror, it is time for a new mood of seriousness and realism on climate change. This is a challenge and an inescapable reality that we are going to be stuck with for generations. It is time to talk about adaptation and bring the security community in from the cold. It is now all about the balance between mitigation and adaptation and making sure that we get the balance right in terms of finance, resources, organisation and attention. No doubt next summer, as we head back to 40°C here in Europe, the planet will give us a less-than-gentle reminder.


The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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