Tuesday, July 5, 2022
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Call off the climate scientists and bring in the engineers

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‘IF’ is possibly the most dangerous word in the English language, as in: if we all behaved ourselves we wouldn’t need prisons. Yes, you say, of course, but it’s not going to happen, is it?

It is an ominous sign of despair that the word has cropped up in discussions about climate. A recent Nature article said that ‘warming can be kept from rising an average of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels if governments adhere strictly to the timelines of their pledges’. A new analysis has found that ‘if all the pledges made by countries [at COP26] are implemented in full and on time, temperatures would rise by 1.9-2C’.

‘If’ can appear in disguise. ‘There is still a good chance that humanity can prevent some of the most dire consequences of global warming . . . so long as (my italics) all the pledges made under the Paris Agreement . . . are carried out on time, new research has found.’

At the uppermost levels of the climate fraternity there seems to be a growing feeling that nothing much is happening in spite of their perhaps over-ambitious attempts to tell us how serious things are. For instance, the recent full report from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, runs to 3,600 pages, not one of which will be read by governments, dictators or presidents.

Maybe time to stop writing about the problem and simply give out orders? They’ve thought of that. Somewhere in the report there was a message: ‘It was now or never to limit global warming . . . all countries must reduce their use of fossil fuels by substantial amounts.’

Last month the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, announced: ‘We must end fossil fuel pollution and accelerate the renewable energy transition before we incinerate our only home. Time is running out.’ 

The Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2016 was supposed to be a legally binding international treaty to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century. Five years later the COP26 Conference in Glasgow last November was still pleading with countries to ‘align their national climate action pledges with the Paris Agreement’.

Alok Sharma, the UK’s Minister for COP26, warned recently that ‘failure to act on the promises made at the Glasgow conference would be an act of monstrous self-harm’. He went on to urge world leaders to ‘accelerate action on promises made six months ago at COP26’.

The New Scientist is understandably pessimistic: ‘In Glasgow, 196 countries promised to “revisit and strengthen” their plans for curbing emissions, but there is little sign of this happening.’

Of course there is little sign of it happening. The reason is that people want electricity because it is the lifeblood of civilisation. Europe and North America have had it for over a century; other parts of the world have realised what they are missing and their leaders are anxious to provide it before their populations riot.

The quickest and cheapest way to provide electricity is by way of coal-fired power stations. ‘China, the world’s top greenhouse gas polluter,’ warns the Global Energy Monitor, ‘continued to lead all countries in the domestic development of new coal plants, commissioning more new coal capacity in 2021 than the rest of the world combined.’ India is in a similar position: 55 new coal-fired power stations are under construction.

Only a month after the COP26 talks, Japan was ‘already slowing down a move away from fossil fuels’ and encouraging investment in oil and gas. Even the EU has had to move into the real world. The Financial Times reported this month: ‘Brussels has given the green light for the EU to burn more coal over the next decade as it tries to end the use of Russian gas and oil.’

There is another aspect which is certainly hindering, possibly stopping, any serious attempt to deal with our climate. A study this April by Standard Chartered Plc, picked up on the Bloomberg website, focused on one aspect of the move to Net Zero which manages to be both hugely important and rarely mentioned: ‘Eight emerging markets, India, China, Indonesia, Kenya, South Africa, UAE, Nigeria and South Africa, will together need $94.8trillion in transition finance from developed markets if they are to meet climate goals without affecting their citizens’ cost of living.’

Where will the developed markets find that kind of cash in the middle of high inflation, an energy crisis and the Ukraine problem?

Coal-fired power stations will continue to be built for many years yet. Emissions will continue to rise. That is inevitable. There can be only one conclusion: we should concentrate on how to deal with the stuff once it’s in the atmosphere.

We need the determination to cope with reality, rather than appeal for impossible actions. Our current attempts to reduce the UK’s minuscule emissions by eating less meat, switching off lights and installing heat pumps are all useless in the face of the continued use of carbon-based fuels.

If we had the courage to define the problem first in terms of the global demand for electricity, then we could call off the scientists and bring in the engineers to deal with the emissions in the atmosphere.

If every news and media editor would stop their hysterical shrieking about imminent doom, we might be able to think more clearly and plan more carefully.

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Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams is a freelance writer and has been a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society since 1984.

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