In 2020, as global carbon emissions fell by a record 7 per cent, some hailed a positive consequence of the worldwide shutdown. But normality has swiftly resumed as societies have unlocked: emissions are forecast to rise this year at the second fastest rate in history. That it took the worst pandemic for a century to reverse this trend so fleetingly reveals what is wrong.
Every day new evidence accumulates that humanity is on an unsustainable path. After accelerated deforestation, the Amazon rainforest now emits more carbon than it absorbs. In New York, smoke from wildfires thousands of miles away in California led the city to suffer the worst air quality in the world on 20 July. In Germany and Belgium, the deadliest flooding in Europe since 1985 claimed more than 200 lives. In China, record-breaking rainstorms in Zhengzhou forced the relocation of more than a million people. In London, flash floods left cars stranded and submerged train stations. There is nowhere to hide from climate change.
These events are not mere shocks or aberrations but the predictable consequence of unprecedented warming: the 20 hottest years since records began in 1850 have occurred in the last 22 years. Past warnings now appear grimly prescient. In 2007, for instance, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that “in south-east Australia the frequency of very high and extreme fire danger days is likely to rise 4 to 25 per cent by 2020”.
The world may have only a decade left to prevent average temperatures rising by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – the point at which the risk of irreversible and catastrophic climate change significantly increases. (They are currently around 1.1°C to 1.3°C higher.) Thawing Arctic permafrost could create even higher emissions.
But there is some cause for hope. Under President Joe Biden, the United States has rejoined the Paris Agreement and has vowed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. China, which has been the world’s largest carbon emitter since 2007, has pledged to do the same by 2060. Should these targets be met, according to the NGO Climate Action Tracker, warming could be limited to 2°C.
It would be reckless to accept this optimistic scenario, however. Based on the policies currently in place, temperatures would rise by 2.9°C. At this level, estimates suggest, 275 million people would be subject to flooding, while more than a quarter of the world’s population would be exposed to extreme drought conditions. Uninhabitable land and food shortages would create a new era of mass climate migration and geopolitical resource conflicts.
The Covid pandemic represents an opportunity for significant change. Through dramatic interventions to support jobs, businesses and living standards, governments have demonstrated the power of the state to reshape the economy. The risk, however, as happened after the 2008 financial crisis, is of a retreat to the status quo. The G20 countries have devoted around $291bn of bailout spending to fossil fuel industries, compared to $246bn for clean energy.
The UK, which will host the UN Climate Change Conference (Cop26) in Glasgow in November, is forecast to fall far short of its target of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
But even if economies are rapidly decarbonised, governments will be forced to adapt to a changed world. States will need to invest far more in flood defences, heat-resilient homes and energy security to combat the extreme weather events that global warming has made inevitable.
In the modern era, there has never been a greater threat to humanity’s collective prosperity and survival than the climate crisis. Though the cost of global warming will fall most heavily on the world’s poorest, no country can escape the consequences of an overheating planet. Solidarity against this shared threat is no longer a matter of altruism but of self-preservation.
[see also: How China became the world’s biggest CO2 emitter]
This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special