Eight things you need to know about global warming and the climate summit in Glasgow
Apart from human misery, the cost of doing nothing is staggering: an estimated $600 trillion by the end of the century. In other words, the losses due to climate degradation far exceed the investments necessary to prevent it.
Is it too late to prevent a climate crisis? What consequences await us? What is the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C? Who will pay the bill? Is this the summit of the last chance? You can read answers to these and other frequently asked questions here.
1. What are the main causes of global warming?
Global warming is a consequence of the amount of carbon dioxide, or CO², that enters our atmosphere. Since the industrial revolution, CO² levels have been rising and are now at their highest in the past 4 million years.
There are three main reasons for this. The most important by far is the burning of fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. We burn them to generate the huge amount of energy on which our entire industrial and modern civilization is based. Practically all of our prosperity and technology is based on energy from fossil fuels. As a result, billions of tons of CO² are released into the atmosphere every year.
A second cause is deforestation, because as long as trees grow, they take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. So, cutting down forests for timber, agriculture or industry increases carbon emissions. Since 2010, the Amazon Forest has emitted more CO² than it has stored.
A third cause is the emission of methane. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that has up to an 80 times bigger warming effect than CO² in the short term. Livestock farming, fossil fuel extraction and landfills are the main sources of methane emissions. Since measurements began in 1983, the level of methane in the atmosphere has been rising faster than ever. This too is a worrying development for the planet.
2. Who are the biggest emitters?
Carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for centuries. The effect is cumulative. Emissions are extremely unevenly distributed, both today and in the past.
Just 90 big companies have historically been responsible for nearly two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions over the past 200 years. These are almost exclusively companies from the countries of the North.
The rich, industrialized countries together account for 64 percent of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions. In contrast, Africa's 54 countries are responsible for only 4 percent of global carbon emissions, but do absorb about 80 percent of the impact of climate change today.
But there is also a big difference within the countries themselves. In both the US and the UK, the richest 10 percent of the population produce at least five times as much emissions as the poorest 50 percent. The richest 10 percent of the world population produce as much as 175 times the emissions of the poorest 10 percent.
In absolute terms, China is the biggest emitter of CO² today. But per capita, the country only comes 42nd, preceded by many European countries. It is mainly the Gulf States and countries like Canada, the US and Australia that are the big culprits.
And even those numbers give a distorted picture. Because the most highly industrialized countries consume more emissions than they produce. Countries like China do just the opposite. Chinese exports account for about 5 percent of global fossil fuel emissions. Two-thirds of these emissions exports go to OECD countries (the club of 38 rich countries).
3. What are the main consequences?
Two centuries ago, the average temperature began to rise steadily. But since the Second World War, that increase has become exponential. This causes a number of harmful effects.
Extreme weather events
Heat waves and extreme droughts will be 4 to 9 times more frequent than in the past. If we head for 3°C, virtually all of North America and Europe will be at an increased risk of wildfires. Rivers in France, and probably in the rest of Europe, could lose up to 40 percent of their flow, making them largely unnavigable.
Extreme rainfall, which caused deadly floods in Germany and Belgium last summer, will occur up to nine times more. The number of exceptional weather events that cause flooding, such as storms and tsunamis, could increase tenfold.
An average of five million people already die every year as a result of extreme weather. Extreme weather events alone have added an average of 25.3 million displaced persons each year since 2008. By 2060, about 1.4 billion people could be climate refugees.
Melting ice and rising sea levels
A second important consequence of global warming is the melting of the ice cap. The North Pole, South Pole and Greenland contain gigantic amounts of ice, which is now slowly melting away. The Arctic is warming up almost three times faster than the Earth as a whole. Greenland has lost more ice in the last decade than in the previous century.
This, in turn, causes different effects. The ice gives way to darker water, which absorbs more solar heat than ice, warming the planet even more. In addition, the permafrost (area where the subsurface never completely thaws) of the Arctic contains enough methane to make the planet 20°C warmer. It is already being released in large quantities in northern Russia. All that methane may not be released in the short term, but we should at least avoid this in the long term.
Last but not least, another effect is the rise of the sea level. Scientists assume that, in the best-case scenario, by 2100 the sea level will rise between 1 and 2 meters. But that rise will continue for millennia and could produce oceans up to 6 meters higher than today. Megacities such as London, Jakarta, New York and Shanghai cannot survive such a sea level rise.[i] By 2100, a fifth of the world's population may have to be displaced because of rising sea levels.
It is not only the sea ice that is melting. Glaciers are also affected. They are the reservoirs of 95 per cent of the fresh water on this planet. At present, 2 percent of their mass is melting every year. More than half of the world's major glaciers are predicted to disappear by the end of this century.
Tipping points and feedback loops
So far, global warming is happening quite predictably and at a fairly steady pace. But this may change once certain thresholds are exceeded or due to feedback loops.
An example of such a feedback loop: the burning of fossil fuels causes warmer temperatures and long periods without rain. That leads to more fires, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere, which in turn leads to even hotter and drier conditions, and even more fires.[ii]
Scientists have already pointed to several of these feedback loops. They point out that global warming is something very complex and that gradual changes in the climate can suddenly lead to drastic consequences when a certain threshold is crossed. These thresholds are not necessarily determined in advance and one climate tipping point can cause another to topple, just like dominoes.
4. What is the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C?
At the climate summit in Paris, the main aim was a warming of 2°C,[iii] now the consensus is moving more and more in the direction of 1.5°C. The difference doesn't seem huge, but the consequences are.
The risks of climate change and its irreversibility rapidly increase between 1.5°C and 2°C warming. This is evident from scientific models. In recent years we have already been able to see - also in my country, Belgium - the consequences of a 1.1-1.2°C warmer world. They are anything but reassuring.
With a temperature increase of more than 1.5°C, the Arctic is likely to lose its summer ice, with disastrous consequences for the rest of the climate (see above). The Greenland ice cap could also enter a state of irreversible decline.
An increase of more than 1.5°C could cause irreparable disruption to the Gulf Stream, with disastrous consequences for agriculture and biodiversity. At 2°C, small islands and low-lying coastal areas around the world would be flooded.
According to Alok Sharma, chair of the climate summit in Glasgow “at 1.5C, 700 million people would be at risk of extreme heatwaves. At 2C, it would be 2 billion. At 1.5C, 70% of the world’s coral reefs die. At 2C, they are all gone”
We can consider 1.5°C to be one of the tipping points of global warming described above. The latest report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) states that every fraction of a degree counts. Every tenth of a degree Celsius of warming that we can prevent will make the planet a lot more liveable for future generations.
5. Is it too late to stop global warming?
Every report from the IPCC tells us that there is almost no time left to prevent a climate crisis. In August, UN Secretary General António Guterres labelled the latest IPCC report as a “code red for humanity”.
It is not too late yet, but there is little time left all the same. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), there is a 40 percent chance that within five years we will have an annual average temperature of more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
To stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, according to Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), “we have eight years to almost halve greenhouse gas emissions: eight years to make the plans, put in place the policies, implement them and ultimately deliver the cuts. The clock is ticking loudly.”
It is not for nothing that scientists and politicians call the 2020s the crucial decade for the climate.
In other words, it is all hands on deck and we will have to accelerate current efforts. For example, to stay below 1.5°C, coal will have to be phased out five times faster than today. Reforestation has to happen three times faster; climate financing has to grow 13 times faster and the energy intensity of buildings has to fall almost three times faster than now. In prosperous countries, beef consumption must fall one and a half times faster than it does now. And so forth.
It is not a matter of a lack of resources or technology whether we can avoid a climate crisis or not. According to the Pope, “humankind has never had so many resources at its disposal to achieve this goal.” Rather, it is a matter of political will and courage. Greta Thunberg puts it powerfully: “For the Cop26 in Glasgow to be a success it will take many things. But above all it will take honesty, solidarity and courage.”
6. What should be done to avoid a climate crisis?
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), we know exactly what to do. The challenge is unprecedented because it requires no less than a revolution in our energy system. However, according to the IEA, this revolution is technically feasible and affordable (see below).
We must realize that between 1850 and 2000, mankind's energy consumption increased 15-fold Over the next thirty years, 90 percent or more of the world's energy now produced from fossil fuels will have to be provided by alternative sources. This is certainly a mammoth task.
According to the IEA, electrification based on renewable energy sources is at the heart of the new energy system. Transport and certain industrial applications also require other energy sources such as hydrogen, bioenergy or fossil fuel plants that bury their waste instead of emitting it. Nuclear power is also recommended by some, but is not appropriate.[iv]
The phase-out of coal is urgent and essential in this regard. Methane emissions must be significantly reduced in the short term. This means, among other things, that agriculture and food consumption need a serious reset. The energy revolution also means that the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground. [v] This will be one of the most difficult challenges, but it is crucial. In addition to the energy revolution, reforestation will also be important to slow down global warming.
The energy revolution will have to be global. What happens in the developing countries will be decisive. That is where the population is growing fastest and where the demand for energy is greatest. This means that the rich countries must make financial resources and technological know-how available so that these countries, too, can make the leap to a sustainable economy.
7. Is it affordable and who should pay for it?
To achieve zero emissions, the IEA estimates that $4 trillion will be needed annually by 2030, compared to around $1 trillion today. These high investments will be partly compensated by lower operating costs and, in some cases, may even generate substantial net profits.
In contrast, apart from human misery, the cost of doing nothing is staggering: an estimated $600 trillion by the end of the century. In other words, the losses due to climate degradation far exceed the investments necessary to prevent it.
In the opening ceremony of the climate summit, the Prime Minister of Barbados pointed out that central banks have injected $25 trillion into financial markets since the financial crisis, including $9 trillion in the past 18 months to combat Covid-19. She asked why that cannot be repeated in order to combat global warming.
“Had we used that $ 25 trillion to purchase bonds to finance the energy transition or the transition of how we eat or how we move ourselves in transport, we would now today be reaching that 1.5 degrees’ limit that is so vital to us.”
But you don't even have to look that far. Today, $5 trillion is spent annually on fossil fuel subsidies. If we direct that money towards the necessary energy transition, then the job will be done.
An important question here is who should foot the bill. The yellow jacket movement has made it clear that a climate plan can only succeed if it is done in an equitable way. The vulnerable must be protected and those most responsible must bear the bulk of the burden.[vi] For Thomas Piketty, “there is no other solution to the climate problem than a very strong reduction in inequality”.
According to former US vice-president Al Gore, the climate crisis and inequality in society must be tackled together and the rich should be targeted: “To close the emissions gap by 2030, it is necessary for governments to target measures at their richest, highest emitters. (…) That includes both measures to constrain luxury carbon consumption like megayachts, private jets and space travel, and to curb climate-intensive investments like stock-holdings in fossil fuel industries.”
On a global scale, this means that the countries of the North will have to assist those of the South. The IEA estimates that about 70 percent of the annual necessary $4 trillion in investment should go to the emerging and developing countries. That equates to $2,8 trillion, and that is a long way from the $100 billion in aid promised annually, which has not even been met yet. A complete turnaround will therefore be needed in this area.
8. What is the relevance of the Glasgow Summit?
Expectations for a climate summit are usually high. And rightly so, because nothing less than the future of our planet is at stake. However, such summits do not usually produce the breakthroughs that are hoped for.
This is partly because decision-making at such a climate summit is very complex. The contradictions between the different actors are sometimes very great and there is no form of enforceability in the absence of world government. Moreover, many government leaders negotiate within a straitjacket imposed by the large capital groups of their country. For example, the US is not signing the coal pact because Biden needs the support in Congress of a senator who is sponsored by the coal industry.
Given these circumstances, it is characteristic of such summits that great, resounding promises are made, but that concrete step-by-step plans to realize those promises, let alone to enforce them are usually lacking. Unfortunately, it is not even uncommon for a climate summit to be used for green washing.
This summit is no exception. The promise to end deforestation by 2030 is a good example of this. This nice-sounding promise is neither enforceable nor transparent, and it lacks a financing plan. Moreover, logging is allowed to continue in the meantime.
Something similar can be seen in the promises of major financial groups to invest the necessary capital in energy transition. If the signatories do not present credible and concrete plans in the short term, this rather smacks of greenwashing. According to one investor, voluntary commitments do not solve the problem. What is needed is regulation. Obviously exactly what those financial groups do not want.
What is important at such a summit is that some form of consensus is reached. That divisions or recriminations such as those which occurred in Copenhagen in 2009 are avoided. For this summit, it is very important that a clear route map is drawn up that can credibly stop the world from exceeding 1.5°C.
The question is then how to ensure that such a route map is actually realized. The real fight about this is not waged at such a summit. As long as government leaders are lackeys of large capital groups, such summits will produce vague and non-binding promises, and our planet will be doomed
[i] Lynas M., Zes graden, Berchem 2020, pp. 92 and 185; Wallace-Wells D., The Uninhabitable Earth. Life After Warning, New York 2019, p. 61.
[ii] Klein N., On Fire. The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, London 2019, p. 223-4.
[iii] Under the 2015 Paris agreement, countries were required to keep global temperature rise “well below” 2°C and “pursue efforts” to limit the increase to 1.5°C.
[iv] Nuclear power is not appropriate because it is too expensive, there is no time for new plants, the unreliability of old plants, the risk of nuclear disasters and the hazardous waste that must be stored for centuries.
[vi] Klein N., This Changes Everything; Capitalism vs. the Climate, London 2014, p. 21.
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