It was “now or never” if the world was to limit global warming to the internationally agreed “safe” level of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, insisted the climate scientist Jim Skea when the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was launched in April. One month on, data from the UN World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) released today shows that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere reached record levels in 2021.
The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was not the only record broken last year. The WMO report also reveals that sea level rise, ocean heat and ocean acidification – caused by the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide – also reached new highs.
“Our climate is changing before our eyes,” said Petteri Taalas, the secretary-general of WMO, citing the drought unfolding in the Horn of Africa, the recent deadly flooding in South Africa and the extreme heat in India and Pakistan. Aside from the human suffering and loss of life that results from these extreme weather events, “economic losses are soaring”. The flooding in the Chinese province of Henan in 2021 – the city of Zhengzhou saw a year’s worth of rain in just three days, leaving subway users with water up to their necks, and hundreds dead – resulted in damages worth $17.7bn. Devastating flooding in western Europe last year also killed hundreds and left Germany with economic losses exceeding $20bn.
Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies are reaping record profits. The increased energy demand following the Covid-induced economic slowdown and the war in Ukraine have sent oil prices rocketing. In the UK on Tuesday 17 May, Labour lost a vote in the House of Commons proposing a windfall tax on the fossil fuel giants.
Labour argue the one-off tax could help people through the cost-of-living crisis, using the revenue raised to subsidise insulating homes or replacing ageing gas boilers with heat pumps – measures that would not only bring down gas bills, so easing immediate pressure on households, but also reduce energy use and emissions. The Tories have so far echoed the industry line that a windfall tax would discourage energy companies from investing in the UK, though this argument appears to be losing support inside the party.
Responding to the WMO data Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, called for companies and governments to “jumpstart” the energy transition, tripling private and public investments in renewables and ending fossil fuel subsidies, which amount roughly to an eye-watering $11m a minute. “Renewables are the only path to real energy security, stable power prices and sustainable employment opportunities,” he said.
The EU announced plans today supposedly in line with this ambition. The bloc will raise its renewable-energy target for 2030 from 40 to 45 per cent, and is calling for more investment in wind and renewable hydrogen power. Yet, NGOs and think tanks criticised the European Commission’s proposed support for new gas infrastructure, which they said would make the transition to net zero “costlier than needed“.
The cost-of-living crisis is, however, being used by some politicians and commentators in the UK and other countries as an excuse to push back against ramping up renewables, making false claims about the cost and energy-producing potential of wind and solar power. Not only are these claims incorrect but the entire framing of the issue is misconceived. It will be the poorest and most vulnerable people everywhere who will suffer most from the extreme weather that results from delaying the necessary elimination of fossil fuels. A report released in April by the UK Environment Agency concludes that people from more deprived areas “disproportionately face more flood risk” than those living in wealthier parts of the country.