Scotland has world-leading climate targets, but are they enough?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 19 June 2019 in Inside Politics

How climate change threatens the future of human civilisation

Image credit: Holyrood

The meeting between Prince Charles and the visiting US President had originally been scheduled to last 15 minutes. According to Donald Trump, it went on for more than 90.

“He is really into climate change and I think that’s great,” he explained, in a TV interview recorded the next day. “What he really wants and what he really feels warmly about is the future. He wants to make sure future generations have climate that is good climate, as opposed to a disaster, and I agree.”

It must have been a pretty surreal meeting, given the chasm stretching between the views of the future king, a committed environmentalist, and a president known for his climate change scepticism. But while Trump has previously expressed some fairly left-field doubts and denials – most famously arguing, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive” – it seemed the talks went surprisingly well. Or they went well according to Trump, anyway.

He explained: “I did say, ‘Well, the United States right now has among the cleanest climates there are based on all statistics.’ And it’s even getting better because I agree that we want the best water, the cleanest water. It’s crystal clean, has to be crystal clean clear.”

He added: “China, India, Russia, many other nations, they have not very good air, not very good water, and the sense of pollution. If you go to certain cities … you can’t even breathe, and now that air is going up … They don’t do the responsibility.”

Finally, pressed on whether he accepted the scientific consensus behind climate change, he said: “I believe there’s a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways. Don’t forget, it used to be called global warming, that wasn’t working, then it was called climate change. Now it’s actually called extreme weather, because with extreme weather, you can’t miss.”

It was a fairly worrying statement from the most powerful person in the world. Given the urgency of the threat, with the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warning the world has just 11 years to reduce emissions enough to avoid the effects of a warming planet becoming irreversible, the idea of the US President conflating climate with weather, and suggesting “it changes both ways” was reasonably ominous.

There just isn’t time for Trump to have a Damascene conversion and come out accepting the science, and recent reports indicate fewer grounds for optimism. A paper from the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, in Melbourne, published this month, states that climate change “now represents a near to mid-term existential threat to human civilisation”.

It examines what life will be like by 2050 if the world ignores calls from the IPCC for urgent action in building carbon-neutral energy systems within the next 10 years, and it does not paint a pleasant picture.

It says: “Analysis of climate-related security threats in an era of existential risk must have a clear focus on the extremely serious outcomes that fall outside the human experience of the last thousand years. These ‘fat-tail’ outcomes have probabilities that are far higher than is generally understood. Traditionally, risk is assessed as the product of probability and damage. But when the damage is beyond quantification, this process breaks down. With existential risks, learning from mistakes is not an option, and we cannot necessarily rely on the institutions, moral norms, or social attitudes developed from our experience with managing other types of risk.”

The worst-case outcome, examined in the paper, is based on a so-called ‘hothouse Earth’ scenario, in which the world’s carbon sinks stop absorbing Co2 and instead start releasing it, exacerbating the current trajectory of warming. In that situation, the Earth’s forests, oceans and land, which currently soak up about 4.5 billion tonnes of carbon each year, would cease to protect us, as they do now, and instead cause temperatures to climb ever higher.

Explaining what a hothouse Earth would mean in practice, Professor Johan Rockström, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, told the BBC: “What we are saying is that when we reach two degrees of warming, we may be at a point where we hand over the control mechanism to planet Earth herself.

“We are the ones in control right now, but once we go past two degrees, we see that the Earth system tips over from being a friend to a foe. We totally hand over our fate to an Earth system that starts rolling out of equilibrium.”

It’s here that the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration’s forecasting takes on the tone of a horror film.

In the 2050 scenario, 35 per cent of the global land area, and 55 per cent of the global population, would be subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions, beyond the threshold of human survivability.

The Jet Stream would become severely destabilised, changing the intensity and distribution of Asian and African monsoons, while North America would be hit by a series of devastating weather extremes such as wildfires, heatwaves and droughts. In that scenario, summer monsoons in China fail, and water flows into the great rivers of Asia would be severely reduced by the loss of more than one-third of the Himalayan ice sheet.

Glacial loss would reach 70 per cent in the Andes, and rainfall in Mexico and central America would fall by half. Aridification would emerge over more than 30 per cent of the world’s land surface, while much of southern Africa, the southern Mediterranean, west Asia, the Middle East and inland Australia would turn to desert.

By that point, the world’s coral reefs will be destroyed, along with the Amazon rainforest and much of the Arctic.

People would no longer be able to live in many states that cannot provide artificially-cooled environments for their populations, with the scenario forecasting that around a billion people would be displaced from the Tropics.

Water availability would decrease sharply in the most affected regions at lower latitudes, impacting on about two billion people worldwide, while agriculture would become “nonviable” in the dry subtropics.

At that point, by 2050, food production would be inadequate to feed the global population. A one-fifth drop in food yields brought by desertification and water shortages, coupled with falling nutritional value from the crops that do grow, alongside the collapse of the global insect population, would likely see huge spikes in prices.

That might not be an extinction scenario, but large parts of the world’s most populous cities – including Chennai, Mumbai, Jakarta, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Lagos, Bangkok and Manila – would be abandoned.

It warns: “Even for two degrees of warming, more than a billion people may need to be relocated and in high-end scenarios, the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model, with a high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end.”

The Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration warns that the hothouse Earth scenario could become a reality following two degrees of warming. But current commitments, made by nations in the 2015 Paris Agreement, are likely to see the current temperature-rise trajectory reach three degrees or more by 2100, while the authors warn that even that figure does not include “long-term” carbon-cycle feedbacks, which could lead to around five degrees of warming by 2100.

So it’s easy to see why Prince Charles might worry. Yet despite repeated warnings, global action still lacks urgency, while the UK, held captive by Brexit, has contrived to find other related issues with which to occupy itself.

A recent warning from Chancellor Philip Hammond highlighted the tension between the threat posed by climate change and the political inclination to think in four or five-year cycles.

Writing to the Prime Minister, Hammond suggested the cost of eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 could be 40 per cent higher than previous government estimates have suggested, with the total bill rising to over £1trn, meaning less money to spend on schools, police and hospitals.

Number Ten responded strongly to the leaked letter, with a spokesperson for the PM suggesting the estimate conflated economic cost with public spending.

She said: “There are a lot of figures out there on this issue that don’t factor in the benefits or consider the costs of not doing this.

“The costs related to meeting this target are whole-of-the-economy costs, not a fiscal cost, and so it’s not really right to frame it as a trade-off for public spending.”

Interpretations of the response as a signal that Theresa May would look to enshrine the aim of net-zero emissions by 2050 as part of a rushed attempt at securing a legacy in office proved correct. Arguing there was a “moral duty to leave this world in a better condition than what we inherited”, the Prime Minister said: “We have made huge progress in growing our economy and the jobs market while slashing emissions.

“Now is the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children. We must lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth.”

Yet others were understandably cynical, given the move came shortly after the Financial Times revealed that cabinet ministers had agreed to carry forward past “overperformance” in emission reductions, brought by recession, to allow a potential breach of pollution limits in future. The chancellor reportedly described the move as an “insurance policy” for the next government, but opposition parties and campaigners were less impressed, with the SNP accusing the UK Government of “fiddling figures while the planet burns”.

SNP MSP Gillian Martin said: “Climate change is an emergency and the SNP is serious about taking the necessary action to protect our country and our planet.

“It’s deeply concerning that the UK Government appears to want to use accounting tricks to get round their moral obligation to reduce emissions faster – this is fiddling figures while the planet burns.

Frustration with UK policy is longstanding, with government figures expressing increased irritation with their UK counterparts from 2015 onwards.

Most recently, that frustration took shape in a letter to UK ministers, from environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham, urging them to take action in reserved areas so Scotland can meet its aims.

For its part, the Scottish Government has consistently demonstrated a determination to go slightly further than its nearest neighbours, with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon using her speech at her party conference to declare a climate emergency, just weeks after her MSPs voted against almost the exact same statement in parliament.

As Sturgeon put it: “We are already a world leader and our new legislation commits us to being carbon neutral by 2050. It contains some of the toughest targets in the world. But many are urging us to do more and go further. I am listening.

“Later this week, the Committee on Climate Change will publish new scientific advice on Scotland’s targets, so I am making this public promise to the young people I met, and to their entire generation. If that advice says we can go further or go faster, we will do so.”

The Scottish Government duly confirmed amendments had been lodged to the Climate Change Bill to set a legally binding target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 at the latest, with Scotland becoming carbon neutral by 2040, alongside interim targets for a 70 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 and a 90 per cent reduction by 2040, relative to 1990 levels. Scottish emissions were 49 per cent below 1990 levels in 2016.

Meanwhile, as Scottish ministers demanded greater action from the UK, MSPs on the Scottish Parliament Environment Committee called for greater clarity on how the Scottish Government will meet its new targets.

The report, published ahead of the committee’s consideration of Stage Two of the Climate Change Bill, urged ministers to release clear plans covering how each sector will contribute to reducing emissions to net zero by 2045, alongside a focus on innovation and behavioural change.

This was then followed by the news that, although total emissions fell by 3.3 per cent during 2017, Scotland’s participation in the EU-wide Emissions Trading System (ETS) meant adjusted emissions, used for setting targets, increased by 3.7 per cent.

The drop was driven by decreases in coal consumption in the power sector and a fall in the use of fossil fuels in the chemical industry, yet transport emissions remained stubbornly high. They have increased each year since 2010, with a further two per cent increase overall in 2016. They then increased by 2.2 per cent between 2016 and 2017.

And so the same old battles rage on, with the Scottish Government pointing to its world-leading targets, and its critics pointing to its continued love affair with car use.

And while ministers can point to plans for low emission zones, new funding for active travel and targets to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032, a report from the Committee on Climate Change, released last year, warned, “it’s unclear how these policies will deliver a more rapid transition than the rest of the UK”.

As the CCC put it: “Scotland’s progress in reducing emissions from the power sector masks a lack of action in other areas, particularly transport, agriculture, forestry and land use.”

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