THE way most of us know anything about weather is by way of the forecast. That is our only contact with meteorologists. The results do not generate trust in their opinions as their breezy confidence can sometimes be misplaced. Computers and the associated software have meant they can add an apparently convincing amount of detail to what used to be ‘showers clearing from the west.’ But in this field more detail equals less accuracy.
Climatologists, closely related to the weather people, have been telling us for at least 30 years that unless we stop using coal, oil and gas we are going to warm the earth to dangerous levels. There has been a superabundance of climate conferences in that time, each one declaring something must be done to reduce emissions and all the world agreeing, yes, we really must act soon. But it is clear that some countries are suspicious about the very specific detail because the 2015 Paris Agreement said we should aim ‘to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’.
That 1.5°C has become a benchmark, seen as a limit beyond which lies the
irreversible slide into a heat death. It is also suspiciously precise, seemingly a figure calculated using the latest world-wide data at the time, but probably nothing of the sort. Some nations, therefore, have not put that target first in their list of priorities. Their factories and their people, they decided, need the kind of electrical power in their workplaces and homes that the Western countries have had for a hundred years. Emission reduction can come later.
The result is (April 2023) ‘local governments in China approved more new coal power in the first three months of 2023 than in the whole of 2021’, and the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, insisted (July) in a speech that ‘China would pursue its goals to phase out carbon dioxide pollution at its own pace and in its own way’. South Africa (July) ‘is the world’s most coal-dependent nation . . . with coal accounting for 69 per cent of its primary energy consumption in 2022.’
China (August) is ‘approving new coal power projects at the equivalent of two plants every week, a rate energy watchdogs say is unsustainable if the country hopes to achieve its energy targets.’ (September) ‘Coalmine expansions and developments approved in Australia so far this year are expected to add nearly 150million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over their lifetime.’ Argentina (November): Newly-elected president Javier Milei wants ‘to spur the development of liquefaction capacity for LNG exports, allow producers to export oil and gas under long-term contracts’.
Europe (November) ‘could burn around 185m tonnes more coal than previously anticipated by 2030 due to reduced Russian gas imports.’ India (November): ‘The Union coal ministry . . . announced plans to increase India’s coal production to 1.404billion tonnes by 2027, with an eye to further boost it to 1.577billion tonnes by 2030.’
This backsliding has led to some stern words from the Guardian (November): ‘Coal must be phased out seven times faster than is now happening . . . countries are falling behind on almost every policy required to cut greenhouse gas emissions . . . the world needs to retire about 240 average-sized coal-fired power plants every year between now and 2030.’ It’s not going to happen, is it?
The next big climate conference (COP28) to try and make it happen is due to begin in Dubai on Thursday. The organisers, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, are already worried. ‘The path to success at COP28,’ said Executive Secretary Simon Steill, ‘requires an unwavering commitment from every government, industry, and individual. Ambitious targets must be set, and more importantly, they must be met.’
There will be an immense amount of talking and at the very last minute a mountain of resolutions will be agreed by all parties. Media verdicts will range from ‘congratulations on a great achievement’ to ‘there goes yet another wasted opportunity’.
There will be no recognition of the crevasse between the talk of emissions reduction and civilisation’s evolutionary need for a constant supply of electricity. There will be little recognition of nuclear, which for the moment is the only realistic way to zero emissions although with huge cost and time penalties.
It is obvious that one basic meteorological fact is well understood by some nations’ rulers: wind and sun are treacherous and unreliable elements on which to base their people’s hopes for an all-electric life. There will be hot summer nights with no wind and millions of air-conditioners on max. There will be bitter windless winter darkness when every form of heating is on high. What then?
If your climate view is that emissions have to come down, these annual conference resolutions are, like the wind and sun, treacherous and unreliable.