Climate change: it is now or never


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

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

Although our day-to-day preoccupations are still very much focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, and hopes for a let up by the summer are mixed with anxiety that new variants will emerge and more waves of infections will roll over us, future historians may well remember 2021 not for the virus, but as the year when the world finally became serious about climate change.

Just a few weeks back, the United States Special Envoy for Climate Change, John Kerry, was in Shanghai meeting his Chinese counterparts. Incredibly, given the fractious state of the Washington-Beijing relationship, they signed a 600-word Joint Statement pledging to work together to reduce global carbon emissions and to work for a successful outcome to the COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow this November. A few days later Chinese President Xi spoke at the World Earth Day climate summit hosted online by US President Biden. He was followed at the rostrum by Vladimir Putin, despite this being the moment when East-West tensions were at their height, as Russia deployed 100,000 troops and heavy equipment to its border with Ukraine.

The Earth Day summit, involving 40 leaders from the world’s major nations, demonstrated that even in a more competitive and fractured security environment, multilateralism can still work when, as with pandemics, piracy and now climate change, everybody finds themselves in the same boat and realises they can’t solve their own problems without effective, and extensive, international cooperation. As China and the US are – by a long shot – the world’s main carbon polluters, no serious global effort can succeed in tackling climate change if Washington and Beijing are not able to work hand in hand.

All these pledges may convey more ambition than realism

Indeed, the Earth Day summit showed a new sense of urgency among the industrialised nations. The US, which on Biden’s first day in office rejoined the Paris Agreement, was back leading the international charge, rather than trying to blunt it as during the Trump years. This is important because when the US leads, even US rivals and adversaries feel under pressure to show that they are responsible global citizens and are ready to play their part. Thus, after Obama negotiated the Paris Agreement in 2015, China sharply cut back on building new coal-fired plants. Yet, by the end of the Trump presidency, it was operating over 1,000 coal-fired plants at home and exporting them to Africa and Asia as part of its One Belt, One Road initiative.

At the summit Biden committed the US to reducing its CO2 emissions by 50% to 52% by 2030 vis-a-vis 1990 levels and to decarbonising US power grids by 2035. The EU pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 55% by 2030, up from its previous target of 40%. It was buoyed by an agreement between the EU member states and the European Parliament to enshrine this target in a new EU Climate Law. Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom went even further, promising to reduce British carbon emissions by a whopping 78% by 2035 and Canada, South Africa, Japan and South Korea all made new commitments. Prime Minister Modi of India spoke of phasing out the internal combustion engine by 2030 and producing 400 gigawatts of renewable fuel over the next decade. Putin even spoke of Russia surpassing the EU targets.

China by contrast stayed with its target of decarbonising its economy by 2060 and made no new pledges in Washington, probably wanting to keep its powder dry for the more politically neutral setting of the UN COP26 conference in Glasgow. All these pledges may convey more ambition than realism but they at least show that the industrialised countries now accept to go faster on reducing CO2 emissions, particularly as new green technologies and investments make an early transition to the green, circular economy more feasible than it appeared to be just a decade ago.

Climate change is putting stresses on ecosystems and making conflicts more likely in the first place

Yet the pledges come not a moment too soon. Global efforts to combat climate change have stalled in recent years. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was a breakthrough in its day. It was the first time that most of the countries of the world announced nationally determined contributions, which were political and moral undertakings, even if they were not legally binding. It set the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5% Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and it set the target of financial transfers to the developing countries to help them build their resilience and convert their economies at around US$100bn per annum over a ten-year period.

Subsequent COP meetings at Katowice and Madrid, switched from Chile at the last moment, failed to build on this momentum. Climate experts have estimated that we are only one third of the way towards meeting the 1.5% target, and critics such as Naomi Klein have questioned whether the capitalist system is capable of adjusting to the green economy in the first place. So, Glasgow has come to be seen as the last chance saloon in global efforts to keep global warming around the 1.5% to 2% mark. Beyond that, the options to prevent global warming from accelerating out of control and heading towards 5% or 6% narrow sharply, and the responses, such as geo-engineering projects to filter the rays of the sun, become riskier and more unpredictable.

Moreover, the costs of tardy and inadequate action keep piling up. Last week, the UN World Meteorological Organization published its latest report on the human impacts of climate change. It reported that extreme weather events are occurring three times more frequently than 30 years ago, that one in eight people on the planet have no access to fresh drinking water, and one in four only have limited access. Yet, within 10 years, the UN estimates the global demand for drinking water will exceed supply by as much as 40%.

As the security implications of rising sea levels, soil erosion, prolonged droughts, erratic rainfall and declining biodiversity become clearer, we understand not only how conflicts exacerbate resource depletion and undermine governance, but also how in return, climate change is putting stresses on ecosystems and making conflicts more likely in the first place. This represents a vicious feedback loop and, as temperatures rise, the number of fragile states that are tipping into generalised violence and the breakdown of state authority is increasing all the time.

There will be difficult debates about the balance between mitigation and adaptation

Moreover, it is not only fragile states and developing countries that are suffering the costs of coping with climate change-driven scenarios and the difficulty of recovery but the advanced industrialised countries as well. We have witnessed major forest fires in California, Australia and Russia, and major flooding in the US Midwest, Australia and the UK. In addition to these immediate events, the sources of future trouble continue to accumulate. A team of French scientists has just reported that the world’s glaciers are melting at an alarming rate of 250mn cubic meters a year. Changing oceanography will have major implications for weather cycles like the gulf and jet streams and for carbon storage in the oceans which will impact on marine life and fish stocks.

Since global warming has been going on and even accelerating for decades already, a certain degree of disruption to climate patterns has already been locked in, even if drastic action to cut CO2 emissions is taken immediately. This means that natural disasters, unusually hot summers affecting human and animal life, rising sea levels affecting the half of humanity living in coastal cities or alongside rivers, and human displacement as people move to cooler and more fertile areas will become the norm rather than the exception.

As a result, the debate about climate change is evolving away from an exclusive focus on CO2 reductions and more towards adaptation, focusing on how to manage the humanitarian consequences of more extreme weather events and how to make societies more resilient in coping with the shocks these will cause. As governments prioritise their climate change funding, there will be difficult debates about the balance between mitigation and adaptation or planning for the long term versus increasing responsiveness to cope with more immediate crises such as fires, floods, storms and earthquakes. As the security community looks more systematically at climate change as a threat multiplier and as something that can change geopolitics – for example, the opening up of the Artic, the pressures on states like Russia, Saudi Arabia or Venezuela from declining fossil fuel exports and disputes over the control of rivers and access to water as in the Great Renaissance Dam dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan – there will be greater calls to put these threats and the whole adaptation debate on the agenda of COP26 alongside the national commitments on decarbonisation.

COP26 needs to provide stronger commitments on resilience transfers to the developing and fragile countries

So, what will determine the success or failure of COP26 in truly making this a turning point in curbing the continuing advance of global warming to dangerous new levels? In my view, there are four things to look for.

First, we need to establish an assessment and verification mechanism to determine if countries are meeting their CO2 reduction targets. It should not be left to them to self-certify compliance but it should be entrusted to an independent and expert agency under UN auspices, for instance the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). It could issue an annual table assessing the progress of those countries that present nationally determined contributions to COP26. The UNEP could develop a baseline methodology to ensure fairness and consistency in measuring the national performances. This would help to ensure peer review and pressure in deterring countries from backsliding. The G7 in the UK in June could support this idea. Interestingly, the head of the UK intelligence agency, Ml6, has suggested that because climate change is now such an important security issue, Western intelligence agencies should devote more resources to assessing compliance with national carbon reduction targets. It is an interesting idea, but I believe the UN route is likely to garner more international support.

Second, COP26 needs to provide stronger commitments on resilience transfers to the developing and fragile countries. The promises made in Paris are far from being kept and funds that are transferred from the donor countries sometimes come out of health or education programmes or development aid. So, we are robbing Peter to pay Paul. Only US$30bn in climate resilience funding had been transferred by 2018 whereas the UNEP estimates that developing countries will need between US$140bn and US$300bn by 2030 to meet essential resilience and climate proofing needs.

Within the developing world we often hear talk of ‘carbon space’ or allowing certain countries to continue to produce and consume fossil fuels at scale. The Indian Minister of the Environment has made precisely this appeal. He has pointed to the indisputable fact that the industrialised countries are responsible for 95% of global warming since they started to industrialise in the middle of the 19th century and that developing countries should not be held back in their efforts to catch up as a result. Yet, reducing carbon in one part of the world while increasing it in another is not the solution. So we need to get serious about green economy transition plans and exits from coal, oil and gas production not just for ourselves but for the developing countries too. The World Bank, regional development and infrastructure banks and foreign aid programmes clearly have a key role to play here, as do private companies and philanthropists, such as Bill Gates who has already contributed US$2bn from his foundation to these projects.

This is a make or break moment for the green transition

In third place comes the green transition within the industrialised countries. As they approve major economic recovery programmes to ‘build back better’ after the COVID-19 pandemic, both the US, with Biden’s proposed US$2tn infrastructure package, and the EU, with the Commission’s Next Generation Europe programme of €750bn of grants and loans, have made the disbursement of funds to states or member states conditional on the plans containing a minimal level of investments in green technologies, renewables and the digital economy. In the case of the EU, the levels have been set at around 40% for the green transition and 30% for digital. Germany and France have already announced their intention to exceed these targets and devote nearly all their €40bn and €28bn respectively of EU grants and loans to these targets.

In the US, Biden in his address to Congress this week emphasised that the green transition will produce plentiful jobs, thereby trying to counter Republican criticism that his green policies will mainly eliminate jobs in the US coal mining, oil and gas industries. The problem here is that transitions produce winners and losers. Whereas the losers tend to be concentrated in one place, such as the coal and steel rustbelts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and feel the pain fairly quickly, the winners tend to be spread out diffusely across the country and feel the benefits only gradually. So, it is not an easy political argument to make.

Yet this is a make or break moment for the green transition. COVID-19 has created an appetite for big government and large deficit spending programmes to get economies moving again, interest rates are at an all-time low, and the public stuck at home in lockdown behind computer screens, but enjoying the cleaner air from the fall off in air travel and car journeys, is more ready to embrace this change than ever before. If this window for the green transition is missed, there will be no alternative but to go back to reliance on fossil fuels. Yet an encouraging sign is that the private sector is increasingly seeing the green economy as the future, switching its investment plans and production accordingly. BP and Shell are selling off their oil and gas drilling concessions and the six largest US investment banks have commitments to green projects totalling US$4.3tn. The more the private sector gets behind the green transition, the harder it will be for a future Trump-style populist leader to reverse course back to fossil fuels.

The last chance saloon is not a comfortable place to be, but a last chance is at least a real chance

Finally, the security community needs to be brought into the debate. As said, it is now focusing on the security implications of climate change and is willing and able to contribute. NATO has put climate change on its agenda and indeed the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, was a speaker at Biden’s Earth Day summit. The alliance is looking at how its forecasting and mapping capabilities through space observation and artificial intelligence can help fuse data on how climate change can be a force multiplier of existing tensions and provide early warning of conflict escalation or humanitarian disasters.

NATO is also looking at how climate factors can be included in operational planning and mission preparation, and how the alliance’s forces can set standards for carbon reductions in their exercises and deployments, as well as consume less fossil fuel in their equipment. NATO can usefully engage its widespread network of partners to adhere to the same standards, thereby establishing a global benchmark. In sum, the security community needs to be brought into the larger picture of global decarbonisation efforts so that the adaptation agenda can be better fused with the mitigation agenda as part of a more coherent global approach. COP26, hosted by two NATO allies, UK for the G7 and Italy for the G20, would be the place to start.

A year of COVID-19 lockdowns has reduced carbon emissions by 6% to 7%. Yet we cannot solve the climate crisis by halting most normal economic activity, staying at home and giving up travel and human contact. This might help the climate but it would produce many other negative effects in health and livelihoods. In any case, experts say that we would need to remain in lockdown for 10 years at least before the carbon reductions would achieve a significant impact in lowering temperatures. So, the answer lies in structural changes to the global economy and in sustained and consistent international cooperation. The last chance saloon is not a comfortable place to be, but a last chance is at least a real chance. We must not squander it.

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