Climate Change: Painting a Picture

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The first question I’m always asked is “how bad is it?” On the face of it – it’s not great.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement we agreed to limit total warming from anthropogenic Climate Change to 2C (compared to pre-industrial levels), and aim for 1.5C. Participation was broad, with almost all United Nations states signing, and optimism high. Although Kyoto has widely been considered a failure, these new stringent measures were to put us on the path of a stable climate.

Celebratory scenes at the Paris Agreement.

There is almost no chance we will keep warming below 2C. Global carbon emissions increased 1.7% in 2017, 2.7% in 2018 and a further 1.4% in 2019. Although there have been a dip in emissions in 2020 due to Covid-19, this will not be a lasting trend. China has begun to build coal-fired plants at a disturbingly high rate and the US is due to exit the Paris Accord one day after its election. In New Zealand, methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture account for 48% of our total emissions, and are still barely included in our Emissions Trading Scheme – our regulatory measure designed to combat climate change.

We don’t know exactly what a 2C world will look like, but Carbon Brief has compiled over 70 peer-reviewed reports to show some projections, and the view is terrifying. Ocean acidity will be up 29% by 2050, and sea level rise 56% by 2100. There is an 80% chance of an ice-free arctic summer, and 37% of people will face at least one severe heat wave every 5 years. The number of the population who will face water scarcity will be up by 388 million.

Drought intensity to increase with high temperatures (Carbon Brief).

Climate-induced migration will be a generation defining issue. We’ve already seen the rise of populism in Europe in part due to 1 million Syrian refugees displaced by a civil war inflamed by climate-change induced drought. Unfortunately, we are a species that is often not kind to others. The concern is not only what damage the climate will do to us, but also what we will do to ourselves.

However, there is cause for hope.  2019 saw a tangible shift in public engagement with climate issues, particularly from younger generations. Europe experienced a ‘green new wave’, in part a response to Greta Thunberg’s 2019 school strike for climate. In the US the Green New Deal received huge attention – and although it was not received well politically, it is widely supported and has been pivotal in creating robust discussion around climate change. At home, 8 out of 10 kiwis see climate as an important electoral issue, and this year we saw the signing both of the Zero Carbon Bill and the Emissions Trading Amendment Bill, an incredible feat for James Shaw of the Greens.

Melbourne school strike.

The world is experiencing a shift to renewable electricity as fossil-fuel based power becomes less and less financially viable. The market is beginning to shoulder coal in favour of renewable sources. Electricity from solar, wind and hydro, thankfully, is cheap and getting cheaper, and increasingly more available and efficient due to advancements in technology. We are very lucky in New Zealand to have 84% of our electricity coming from renewable sources, and the interest in electric vehicles is on the rise.

How bad is it? It’s not great, but it is not an insurmountable problem either. David Wallace-Wells, author of the brilliant The Uninhabitable Earth summarizes this perfectly. “Annihilation is only the very thin tail of warming’s very long bell curve, and there is nothing stopping us from steering clear of it.”

Sophie Elstone-Sara is studying towards a Master of Climate Change Science and Policy at Victoria University, Wellington.

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