A Letter to My Daughter on Climate Change


School Strike for Climate, Fridays for Future
School Strike for Climate in Parliament Square (Photo: Amer Ghazzal/Alamy)

May 2021


Dear Emma,


Climate Change and COP26: A Short Guide To What You Should Really Know


I first became interested in Climate Change when you went on School Strike over two years ago.


Since then, the issue has been getting more and more publicity. In November this year Britain will be hosting the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which is widely regarded as being crucial. A few months ago I realised that, despite all the publicity, I knew remarkably little about the substance of it, and wanted to be better informed in preparation for COP26, so I have been doing some research. Now that you are studying Economics for GCSE and have begun to take an interest in politics, I think you will appreciate knowing what I have learnt. So here it is: my short guide to Climate Change and COP26. (COP26 is the 26th annual Conference Of the Parties to the 1994 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).

 

Let’s start with some historic perspective. For the last 100,000 years, the Earth’s average surface temperature has oscillated around 10°C by plus or minus 5°C, producing regular warm periods and Ice Ages. However, in the last 10,000 years it has remained remarkably warm and stable at about 14°C. It is no coincidence that this is the period over which homo-sapiens developed from being small family groupings of hunter gatherers, into the globalised society of 7.5 billion people we know today.


Scientists first became concerned about Global Warming in the mid-1980s, when a noticeable trend of increasing global temperatures was established. The earth was becoming warmer than it had been for millions of years. From the beginning, it seemed most likely that it was due to human activity.


The Earth has always had a layer of gases in its lower atmosphere which allows solar radiation to pass through from space, but which absorbs reflected radiation from the Earth’s surface, keeping the earth about 20°C warmer than it would otherwise be. These are known as greenhouse gases. The main ones are carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Methane and nitrous oxide are the most powerful, being 8 and 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide respectively in warming the planet.


For the last 200 years humans have been generating the energy they have needed to develop from agricultural to industrial and post-industrial societies by burning fossil fuels, primarily coal, oil and gas. This produces carbon dioxide as a by-product. Many manufacturing and industrial agricultural processes also produce carbon dioxide as well as methane and nitrous oxide.


The industrial revolution started in Britain and spread to the rest of Europe, the US and Japan during the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, industrial production increased dramatically in the 1950s as the post-Second World War economic boom took hold. In the 1990s economic growth in China, India and other developing nations with large populations also took off, substantially boosting greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, several of these developing nations, principally Brazil and Indonesia, were clearing tropical rainforests to exploit commercial farming opportunities, principally soybean, palm oil and rearing beef. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, so this added to the problem.


Graph showing levels of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere
Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have skyrocketed since the 1950s (Source: NOAA)

By the end of the 20th century, the trend of increasing temperatures and the causal link to greenhouse gas production had become clear, although there were still a significant number of deniers and sceptics. The level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere had doubled since pre-industrial times. The higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, was causing the oceans to become acidic as well as warmer. This, combined with higher land temperatures and deforestation was leading to the loss of wildlife, plants and biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, both on land and in the sea.


By the turn of the 21st century, the scientific community was getting increasingly alarmed and the issues of Global Warming and Climate Change were getting onto the political agenda, principally in high-income countries. Within a few years the momentum towards action had become such that, in 2015, at the COP21 world conference, leaders signed the Paris Agreement, committing themselves to targets to limit greenhouse gas emissions so as to keep global warming at an agreed level: 1.5°C over pre-industrial times, which would involve cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.

Signing of the Paris Agreement (COP21)
The Closing Ceremony of COP21 after the signing of the Paris Agreement. (Photo: UN Photo/Mark Garten)

There were many fundamental issues the Paris Agreement had to address in order for it to be seen as fair and therefore have a reasonable chance of success:

  • cutting greenhouse gas emissions would require massive investment and increased costs to businesses and consumers, which many countries would try to avoid, if they thought they could get away with it, as they would still benefit from what other countries were doing

  • the full benefits of taking costly climate change action now would not be fully felt for decades to come, which would make it politically unpopular with many, who were only interested in the short term

  • high-income countries, which had been responsible for most of the emissions of the last 200 years, principally the EU, USA and Japan, would have to compensate middle and low income countries for being unable to use cheap fossil fuels as an engine of economic development, in the same way that they had countries that generate the most greenhouse gases, such as China, the USA and the EU, would have to cut their emissions by most. Typically, high-income countries generate five times as much greenhouse gas per person as middle-income countries and fifteen times as much as low-income countries.

  • countries with the largest fossil fuel reserves, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, would need to be compensated by those with the best renewable energy resources, principally sunshine and wind, such as the USA and Australia.

  • countries with the largest rainforests, including Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would need to be compensated for stopping deforestation and ideally paid to reforest

  • Finally, the countries that would suffer first and worst from global warming, typically some of the poorest in the world, such as Vietnam and Bangladesh, would need direct assistance.

Given the immensity, complexity and novelty of the task, the Paris Agreement was hailed as a breakthrough at the time. Individual countries committed themselves to their own greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and plans, which collectively offered the prospect of staying below global warming of 1.5°C. However, not all nations committed themselves and most of those that did have failed woefully to meet their targets. The three biggest producers of greenhouse gases are China (25%), the USA (12%) and the EU (7%). The EU has achieved about half of what it needed to meet the target agreed in Paris, China about a quarter and the USA about an eighth. Very little has been done by other middle or low income nations. Emissions are no lower now than they were six years ago.


So here we are, in mid-2021, over 30 years since global warming was first recognised as a problem. The Earth has already warmed by 1°C. At the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, it will probably be 1.5°C warmer by 2050 and at least 3°C warmer by 2100.


Global warming by 2100 under different scenarios.
Under current policy we are heading to warming of over 3 degrees C by 2100.

You might think that a 3°C warmer planet doesn’t sound so bad. After all, wouldn’t that just make Southern England like the South of France? Unfortunately, not.


This is why. According to leading scientists, the sea, which is 67% of the Earth’s surface, heats up less than the land. The northern hemisphere, which contains 67% of the land surface of the earth, therefore heats up more than the southern hemisphere. So, an overall average 3°C global increase would mean a 6°C average increase for Britain and 11°C average increase for the North Pole. Peak afternoon summer temperatures in Britain could get up to 45°C. That is the same temperature as the Sahara Desert in summertime now. Working outdoors in temperatures over 35° is bad for the health. It is also challenging for crops and livestock. The higher temperatures would also increase evaporation from the oceans leading to 30% more rain for Britain. The higher temperatures and rainfall would not be evenly spread throughout the year, but would result in more severe weather events: storms, floods and droughts. The higher rainfall and stronger storm sea surges, combined with the rise of 1m in sea levels, caused by melting ice at the poles, would cause coastal floods and land erosion. The environmental damage would be enormous and irreversible, as animals and plants would fail to adapt fast enough to the new climate, with a 90% reduction in the number of wild animals and 90% of vertebrate species, on land and sea, becoming extinct. The economic and social costs are exceedingly difficult to estimate, but would be very substantial.


This prospect sounds bad enough, but Britain has a climate considerably cooler than average and is a high-income country. It would be a lot worse in parts of the world that are already hot or low lying and lower-income. Here, hundreds of millions of people would find their homelands uninhabitable, either because they are flooded, too hot, or incapable of supporting agriculture or fishing. This would lead to mass starvation. Billions of people would find themselves back in poverty. Migration would take place on an enormous scale, triggering violence and wars as countries compete for scarce inhabitable land resources.

This is the prospect for the bottom-of-the-range increase of 3°C. For every 0.5°C increase over 3°C, the severity of the outcomes is likely to double, as impacts are cumulative and compound, rather than linear and additive.


Even this could be a lot worse, if any of several potential tipping points are triggered along the way: The total melting of the ice in Greenland, the Arctic or Antarctica; the thawing of the permafrost in Canada and Russia; the dying of the rainforests in the Amazon, Congo or Indonesia; the collapse of the ecosystem. Our understanding of the science underpinning these processes is so poor that we really don’t know what risks we would be taking. At some point, the situation could become unstoppable, irreversible and deteriorate at an accelerating rate.


There is a danger that some people may become immune to apocalyptic visions of the future like this and see it as scaremongering, but it is important that no one is under any illusion about the seriousness of the situation and the risks we or now taking.

So, if the future without action looks so bleak and the world committed itself to action in Paris in 2015, the obvious questions are, ‘why has so little happened since?’ and ‘why will it be any different in Glasgow at the COP26 later this year?’


Perhaps the main reason for the failure of the last six years has been the lack of political leadership on the issue, particularly in the USA, where President Trump was a climate change denier. This is where the main reason for optimism lies. The new president, Biden, is championing the cause of climate change action. Furthermore, political opinion, especially in high-income countries, has been converted to climate change action by the high-profile campaigning of activists such as Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and the Extinction Rebellion movement and by the recent evidence. The last six years have been clearly the hottest on record. They have also seen a significant increase in severe weather events, such as droughts and wildfires as well as storms and floods. Everything the climate change scientists have been predicting has come true. There is now no doubt that the world faces an unprecedented existential threat that requires a collective response of unprecedented magnitude. The debate and has moved on from whether anything needs to be done to what needs to be done.

David Attenborough Greta Thunberg

(Photo: Conor McDonnell/WWF-UK) (Photo: Michael Campanella/The Guardian)


Not surprisingly, there is a broad spectrum of opinion on what action is needed. Pessimists, like Greta Thunberg, believe that we may already be too late to prevent a cumulative and irreversible environmental and humanitarian catastrophe and that, in order to have any chance of avoiding it, we must stop using fossil fuels by 2030, not 2050. They advocate a post-consumerist society, where the objectives of environmental sustainability and global fairness take priority over economic development. Optimists, like Bill Gates, believe that it is not too late and that the green industrial revolution, driven by scientists and entrepreneurs will be a powerful generator of global economic growth and prosperity, will improve both our material and social well-being and that reforestation and rewilding will protect the natural environment. Nonetheless, a consensus has developed. Initially, in the next 9 years to 2030 we need to reduce emissions by 50% and then over the following 20 years need to achieve the target of net zero by 2050.


The first step to achieving these objectives is to understand how the emissions are generated. 25% of all GHGs are produced in generating electricity by power stations, burning mainly coal and gas. 25% are produced by manufacturing and construction processes, 20% by agriculture, 15% in transport and 15% in heating our homes and offices.

The immediate task is to convert all electricity generation to zero emission sources: solar; wind; hydro and nuclear. At the moment 67% of electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels and only 10% by solar and wind, which are the alternatives most likely to replace them, because they are now almost as cheap. However, our battery technology is still not good enough to entirely support this move. Solar and wind, without backup batteries, are not reliable enough in most parts of the world and would need support, probably from nuclear power stations.


The next task is to convert fossil fuel-burning industrial processes to electric processes. This should be possible for about 15% of the 25% of the GHGs they generate, but some processes, such as the manufacturing of concrete, steel and fertiliser, necessarily result in the production of GHGs as a by-product.


Most of the GHGs generated by agriculture come from the rearing of animals, especially cows, because they generate methane and are responsible for a large proportion of deforestation. They are also very inefficient converters of plant protein (mainly soybean) into animal protein. So, we should move to a vegetarian diet, or at least give up eating beef and dairy products, or develop synthetic beef.


In transport, about half the 15% comes from cars, which we can convert to electric, but when it comes to ships and planes, we currently don’t have the necessary technology to use batteries or eco-fuels. To eliminate the 15% from heating homes and offices, we can insulate and convert to electric.


Overall, we currently have the capability of eliminating about 67% of all GHGs, if we expand solar and wind electricity generation by about 20x and decommission fossil fuel burning electricity generation and industrial processes.

Can we expand solar and wind energy generation by 20x?


However, in order to eliminate the remaining 33%, we would still need to develop new technologies in batteries, eco-fuels (such as hydrogen) and zero-emission concrete, steel and fertiliser. We also need to develop safer and faster-to-build nuclear reactors.

Two other emerging technologies will be crucial, but we need to prove that they can be efficient at scale. Carbon capture and storage sucks greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and buries them deep underground in the reverse process to fracking. Geo-engineering involves seeding particles in the atmosphere or oceans in order to either reflect more solar radiation, or absorb more carbon dioxide, reducing atmospheric temperature. Either or both would, in principle, allow us to actually reverse global warming.


All this will be expensive. About £2,000 will need to be invested per person per year in high-income countries, or about 5% of national income, which is similar to the amount spent on schools and universities. Most of the investment will be funded by the private sector, but initially it will require heavy government subsidies of about £1,000 per person per year for the next 10 years. This would mean approximately a 10% increase in the amount of tax paid per person per year. The alternatives are to do it through regulation, which would artificially raise prices to the same extent, or through borrowing, which would place the burden on future generations.


If taxation is going to be used, the most efficient type would be a carbon tax. This would reflect the environmental cost of using fossil fuels in their price. It would approximately double their cost. For example, the market price of a barrel of oil is currently about £50, but with such a carbon tax it would be about £100. Such a tax would have to be introduced gradually, but would be the best way of harnessing the resources of the private sector to bring about the necessary investments needed to underpin the green industrial revolution as quickly as possible.


So, what should we be hoping for from the COP26 conference in Glasgow? At the moment, about half the countries in the world, representing about 50% of global GHG emissions, have committed themselves to GHG reduction plans that are consistent with net zero emissions by 2050. This needs to get to 90%+. However, 2050 is too far off to be used as an effective target timeframe and commitments without credible interim step-by-step plans with targets and milestones that can be monitored and verified, are hardly worth having. The crucial decade is upon us now. What is needed are detailed plans to cut GHG emissions by 50% by 2030, together with funding for the investments in research and development and infrastructure needed to develop the missing technologies and replace fossil fuel dependent energy generating processes.


The key to success in Glasgow will be for the three main parties, China, the USA and the EU to recommit themselves to action by submitting detailed interim plans that are capable of being independently monitored and verified, and ideally including penalties for lateness or failure. If this is done then the chances of other countries doing the same would be massively improved.


What are the prospects of this happening in Glasgow? In some respects, not bad. For the first time, the three main parties, China, the USA and the EU are reasonably well aligned and committed and other countries understand the need for action now. On the other hand, the track record of the last six years is not encouraging and political leaders have typically failed to spell out to their citizens the cost of the action needed, how it is going to be paid for, and who are going to be the winners and losers from the enormous change that is going to be required. Also, the EU and USA are beginning to get involved in a strategic ‘Cold War’ with China, the emerging global dominant power of the 21st-century, which could easily cause their current Climate Change alignment to fall apart. China is an authoritarian, one-party, police state, ideologically incompatible with the liberal democratic EU and USA.

Xi-Jinping Joe Biden

(Photo: Chris Ratcliffe) (Photo: The White House)

If a major breakthrough is not achieved in Glasgow or very soon afterwards, it will probably be impossible to prevent warming of at least 2 degrees C.

 

In the meantime, what can we all do to help as individuals? There are plenty of websites dedicated to this topic, but my brief suggestions would be, in order of priority:


1. put climate change near the top of our political priority list and preferably get active

2. put sustainability front of mind when making all buying decisions

3. switch our energy provider to one using renewable sources

4. ask our employer or school what its net zero plan is

5. cut down on eating beef and dairy

6. don’t buy stuff we don’t need

7. if we need to replace a car, either buy second-hand or electric

8. cut down on using car and air travel

9. insulate our homes as well as possible

10. make sure our savings are invested in sustainable businesses

11. offset our carbon footprints with reforestation


Sorry if this short guide is not as short as you would like, but I have tried to keep it as concise as possible whilst including all the information I think you should know. I hope you will find it useful. I have certainly found the research fascinating and organising my thoughts a worthwhile use of my time and effort.


Dad.



Sources:


The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific advisory group (https://www.ipcc.ch/)


The United Kingdom Climate Change Committee (CCC) pan-denominational expert advisory group (https://www.theccc.org.uk/)


Exeter University Future Learn course on Climate Change Science

(https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/climate-change-the-science)


Climate Action Tracker (NGA monitoring GHG reduction commitments)

(https://climateactiontracker.org/)


BBC programme, Climate Change: The Facts (https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00049b1/climate-change-the-facts)


BBC radio, Mark Carney Reith lecture, From Climate Crisis to Real Prosperity

(https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000qkms)


Greta Thunberg: No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference


Bill Gates: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster


Mike Berners-Lee: There is No Planet B


Naomi Klein: This Changes Everything


David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet


Mark A Maslin: How to Save Our Planet


Kate Rayworth: Doughnut Economics


Wikipedia, various pages providing background data


Various articles from The Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Conversation


The New Scientist special issue on Climate Change