The much-hyped United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on September 23, starring UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, and millions of children from around the world rallying for urgent and enhanced climate action, delivered near to nothing.
In 2015, governments pledged in the Paris Agreement to attempt to keep global warming since pre-industrial times to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This requires achieving net-zero global emissions by 2050. Science shows that phasing out coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, is essential to achieving that goal. This year, Guterres asked world leaders to come to the UN with concrete plans to cut emissions to net-zero.
Instead, rich countries and large emitters such as the United States, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil brazenly ignored Guterres’ call and skipped the summit, while others practically came empty-handed to the table. Chinese President Xi Jinping’, leader of the world’s largest emitting country, sent his envoy Wang Yi with nothing but a promise to meet its Paris pledge.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of installing 450 GW after 2022 was received with scepticism given India’s continued dependence on coal-fired power plants. According to BP Energy Outlook 2019, coal’s share in India’s primary energy consumption will be almost half at 48 per cent in 2040, oil’s share will be 23 per cent, and the contribution of renewables will rise fivefold to a mere 16 per cent.
Worldwide, despite the extraordinary growth of renewable energy in the last decade, the share of coal-fired powered plants continues to dominate the global energy system.
According to a report by Climate Analytics, the current and planned coal power plants globally would lead to a generation increase of 3 per cent by 2030 compared to 2010 levels. If the world follows these present trends, this would lead to cumulative emissions from coal power generation almost four times larger than what would be compatible with the Paris Agreement by 2050.
Even if all the planned and announced coal power plants would be cancelled, shelved, or converted to other fuel, the operating coal plants would exceed the Paris Agreement benchmarks by four times in 2030 and more than 20 times by 2040, highlighting the huge risk of stranded assets that the coal sector will be facing in the next decades.
The UNEP Emissions Gap Reports, aka ‘where we are likely to be and where we need to be’, current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are estimated to lower global emissions in 2030 by up to 6 GtCO2e (gigatonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide) compared to a continuation of current policies. This level of ambition needs to be increased around fivefold to align with the 1.5°C limit.
For now, levels of the main long-lived greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4)) and nitrous oxide (N2O) have reached new highs. CO2 emissions grew 2 per cent and reached a record high of 37 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2018. There is still no sign of a peak in global emissions, even though they are growing slower than the global economy.
According to the UN’s Science Advisory Group, ‘the average global temperature for 2015–2019 is on track to be the warmest of any equivalent period on record’. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is of the view that ‘warming and changes in ocean chemistry are already disrupting species throughout the ocean food web, with impacts on marine ecosystems and people that depend on them.’ It also noted that ‘if current trends continue wildfires and heat waves would sweep across the planet annually, and the interplay between drought and flooding and temperature would mean that the world’s food supply would become dramatically less secure.
The IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5° clearly states that, “avoiding that scale of suffering, requires such a thorough transformation of the world’s economy, agriculture, and culture that “there is no documented historical precedent.”
Scientists believe that “this is not physically impossible” but as Thunberg and Guterres discovered, the world is nowhere near ready to tackle the climate crisis on the basis of science. Not yet.
Shailendra Yashwant is a senior advisor to Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Views are personal.