COP26: A meeting on the fate of our planet

For all readers who don't warm to the idea of future palm-fringed beaches in the Arctic

The world's eyes briefly focussed on COP26, the summit in Glasgow on climate change, and the start of the 26th annual meeting known as the "Conference of the Parties" to the UN climate treaty, which continues when the world leaders have boarded their planes. That UN treaty is known as the "UNF-triple-C," the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992. Ratified by 197 countries, it was the first global treaty to address climate change explicitly.

Six years ago, the negotiations at COP21 led to the Paris Agreement. All countries agreed on the goal to prevent the global average temperature from rising 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to keep it below 1.5°C (2.7°F). What the countries could not agree upon was how to divide the burden of reducing emissions. So they decided that each country would set emissions-reduction pledges, and these government targets are known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

Paris Agreement: brilliant but only a good start

More ambitious approaches had failed in the past; this compromise was the best possible. I recently described it in one of these newsletters as brilliant diplomacy, even though the result is likely not strong enough to save the planet. I know that sounds a bit like the doctor declaring that the operation was successful, but the patient died. However, I can't imagine how the widely diverse group of nearly 200 countries could have found more common ground in Paris. Still, the reality is that we need much firmer commitments and more urgent action to stay within the agreed limits of global warming. If solving the climate crisis was easy, there would have been no need for diplomatic compromises.

I remember my last day in Paris after COP21, sitting with friends in a cafe close to Gare du Nord. We were waiting for our trains home and had some time to reflect on the past weeks. We already agreed then that the Paris Agreement was not enough, and everyone knew that firmer commitments to cut emissions would be needed. Unfortunately, since then, global emissions have increased instead of decreased. By now, you must be blind not to see the destruction that climate change is causing worldwide. It is so bad that even the fiercest climate change deniers had to change their tune.

Current policies set us on track to about 2.7°C or 2.9°C of warming by the end of this century, a disastrous cause to a world where you don't want your children to live. But governments increasingly feel the pressure of the population to act on climate change, and the idea behind the Paris Agreement that countries would later raise their ambitions is still alive. More than a dozen countries revisited their NDCs ahead of COP26, and the summit is already resulting in several promising initiatives. They will certainly not be enough, but the world is better of with regulations on methane and a pledge to end deforestation than without them; progress is made in small steps, and each is valuable.

The bigger picture

Let's today look at the bigger picture. The objective of UNFCCC was to "stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." Yet, look around you, and you at our rapidly changing planet, and you know that we have failed. Or look at this graph from the excellent website Our World in Data. It shows the global average temperature relative to the average of the period between 1961 and 1990. These changes are almost all caused by human behavior, especially the burning of fossil fuels and land (ab)use.

The following graph shows that in the past 800,000 years, the CO2 concentrations fluctuated (and so did the temperatures), but they never rose above 300ppm. They are now well over 400ppm.

IPCC baseline scenarios (without explicit additional efforts to constrain emissions) may raise this number further to 1000ppm by 2100. The planet had experienced that before, some 50 million years ago, long before we arrived, only a few hundred thousand years ago. It was not a very pleasant place; although some may like the idea of palm-fringed beaches in the Arctic Circle, there were lots of crocodiles that made life unpleasant. On the other side of the planet, the waters around Antarctica were 30°C (86°F), and there were near-tropical forests on Antarctica itself. So what was it like around the equator? Likely there were dead zones where it was just too hot for animal or plant life. If you are not convinced by now to take urgent and drastic climate action, you never will.

No peak emissions yet

As the subsequent chart shows, global emissions need to be falling, but they are still rising. The world has not yet peaked, and we pull our roller coaster cart slowly but surely further upwards on the steep slope. The higher we go, the more scary the ride will be.

The failure of our climate policies is perhaps best illustrated when you look for 1992 on the graph, it is not indicated, but you can guess where it is. Do you notice that the area under the graph left of 1992 is equal to the surface right of 1992? It means that after the whole world agreed in 1992, by signing the UNFCCC, that climate change was such an existential threat that we needed to stop it, we haven't changed our bad habits and emitted the same amount of CO2 in less than 30 years than humanity has done in the past 10.000 years. In other words, instead of accidentally destroying our beautiful planet, we are now knowingly ruining our beautiful earth.

Back in the early nineties, global temperatures were about 0.25°C above pre-industrial levels. Now we are at about 1.1°C (or 1.2°C, it depends a bit on how you define pre-industrial). It doesn't take much imagination to see that we are on track to reach 1,5°C very soon. The IPCC scientists declared that as the limit beyond which we can't avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change. So it's about time to join the youth protesters; this is your catastrophe too.

Try to explain all this to your grandchildren

And collect some memories. Some day you will tell your grandchildren about today's beauty of the planet. They will chuckle at the minor scale of today's climate disasters that made the news and the small percentage of our GDP needed to stop global warming. But then demand answers why our generation did not take action while we could. We have the knowledge, technology, and financial means; we only lack the will. I hope you will have the answers because I don't.

The next chart shows that we are making progress relative to a world without any climate policies, but we are still far from the progress we need to achieve international targets.

And one more graph, which shows that the longer we delay a peak in emissions, the more drastic these reductions would need to be. It also shows that we can't postpone taking action if we want to stay below the disastrous 1.5°C.

Staying below 1.5°C has become just as much an illusion as believing we can avoid a global catastrophe. But even tragedies come in different shapes and sizes, and we can at least make our maximum effort to minimize warming. Even a hot planet of say 2.5°C is still preferable to one of 3°C. We have two tasks; to stop the heating and help each other prepare for the impact. That requires solidarity amongst all of us on this small heated planet.

Please read this too.

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