The Climate Crisis, the reality, the challenges and indeed the ways forward!

by Niall O´Connor
The Climate Crisis

Given the season that’s in it, let’s start with a nice tune! “Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and since we’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow, man it doesn’t show signs of stopping…..”. Indeed the weather is frightful. With over 400 climate records broken in 30 countries in 2019, and 6 of the ten hottest years on record since 2010, we are sadly now seeing the changes in the climate systems that will impact our world for generations to come. Bangkok itself, in the 1970’s once had a more pleasant climate, with an average of 20 days above 35C per year, however, recent years are averaging over 120 days a year over 35C, its real, it’s here, and it’s not going away!

Working through the IPCC report (Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change), the vast majority of the scientists of the world now agree that we are on course for a higher temperature that the targets agreed under the Paris Climate agreement in 2017, which aspired to maintain us below a rise of 1.5C (figure 1). Today, most scientists believe that we are destined for a minimum of +3C and maybe as much as +5C by 2100. While that seems far away from us today, trust me, the change has started and is impacting every one of us already. The weather patterns are changing, with warming greater than the global averages in many regions around the work, some already averaging above 1.5C, with extreme events becoming unfortunately less extreme and more regular! (think of the excessive fires in Australia, in California, even in 2019 in the Artic region in Sweden).

Figure 1: Temperature reaches 105C, soon!

Global air temperatures are predicated to rise by as much as 4C by 2100, global sea surface temperatures by up to 3C, while marine heatwave days may increase tenfold (destroying all coral reefs, major fisheries and impacting global food security). The Artic, Antarctic and Greenland Ice sheet melt rates are all increasing, reaching tipping points that will see mean sea levels rise for sure by 1 meter by 2100, (but more likely and more frighteningly by as much as 7m). Think of Venice with even 1 more meter of sea water. Then think of Bangkok, Ho Chi Min city, the Mekong Delta, Yangon, and many other low lying areas of the SE Asia region, where with even a 1m sea level rise, this is what it will look like! (figure 2: Bangkok predicted Annual Flood levels in 2050). Now it gets very real. Annual flood levels in Bangkok by 2050 alone will cover the whole city region, worse than the 2011 floods that is estimated to have killed over 650 people, impacted over 13 million people and caused extensive damage to local and indeed international trade for years to come. How can a city cope with annual floods like this! Venice of the South, is not the tourist attraction you think! It is estimated that in the south east Asia region alone, up to 250 million people may have to relocate as sea levels rise. Are we ready for this? Where will they go, what infrastructure is needed to support this, and what pays for that! I’ll come back to that later!

On top of this, the shifting climate patterns continue to cause more natural disasters (figure 3). Asia is one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world with frequent occurrence of many types of natural hazard-based disasters: (meteorological; hydrological; climatological), leaving many parts of Asia, and its many people, experiencing increasing exposure and consequently at risk from disasters. UNESCAP estimated that in 2014, within 17 Southeast Asian cities alone, an estimated 46 million vulnerable people were exposed to extreme risk from multiple hazards, and projects that the number at extreme risk could increase to 66 million people by 2030. Sadly, this shift in risks unfortunately land on the most vulnerable in our communities, the old, the disabled, on migrants and ethnic communities, who lack the support needed to redress these growing threats.

Figure 2 Bangkok, Annual Flood projection by 2050

In my mind, while clearly fossil fuel use is the key factor behind the climate change crisis, we also have to reflect on the increasing trends in global urbanization, which continue to consume vast amounts of concrete, a fossil fuel dependent material, and energy, also heavily reliant on fossil fuel production in this region. We expect that by 2050, over 70% of people will live in cities. To cater for this, we will triple the urban infrastructure needed to house, transport and cater for this rapid growth (to imagine this, currently we develop an area the size of Manhattan every single day!). Given the rise of urbanisation and its infrastructural and energy needs, the decisions we make today will determine our climate insecurity for the second half of the century. The infrastructural investment decisions taken in just over the next five years, will consume up to a third of remaining global carbon budget predicted to keep us below 2C. Change is not quick enough to prevent this!

Yet an alternative is starting to emerge – one focused on compact, connected and sustainable urban growth which create cities that are economically dynamic, vibrant and healthy, especially for air quality! Such cities are more productive, socially inclusive and resilient, as well as cleaner, quieter and safer. It is a win-win for the economy, the people and the environment. Investing in public transport, building efficiency and better waste management could save cities around US$17 trillion globally by 2050 (based on energy savings alone) and further reduce emissions and build resilience. Change is possible, solutions are known, we just have to break with tradition, climb out of the comfort zone of business as usual, and look. Otherwise we destine our lives and those of our loved children, and generations to come, to a rather grim future.

Figure 3: Total number of disasters in SE Asia, 1970-2016

Yet, we are not changing fast enough, as we are sadly entrenched in fossil fuel growth pathways. Countries, not all, measure success on GDP, yet it’s very clear as GDP rises, fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions rise alongside, exacerbating the whole climate crisis. SE Asia increased energy demands sevenfold between 1970 and today, fuelled by fossil-based carbon. With increasing demands for energy throughout the region, supported mainly by coal, oil and gas, the ASEAN region alone shall increase emissions by over 61% by 2025. Where is this change we so badly need? We also know that renewable energy production costs have dropped and are now in line with fossil-based fuel prices. Why not simply make the shift. Why not move subsidies away from coal or oil, and support renewables, slowly and with well thought out plans to ensure a just transition for everyone. Why continue this political economy of Carbon. We have 4-5 years, under current emission levels, before we hit the 1.5C global average temperature increase, and yet we see infrastructure and energy still consume carbon-based energy as if tomorrow doesn’t matter.

We need more Greta’s, more home-grown youth leaders like Nanticha Ocharoenchai, more people to listen to the science and take heed. We need more change, and thanks to them, it’s happening. In November the European Investment Bank became the world’s first public lender to commit to ending funding for coal, oil and gas. In a major boost for climate action and the EU’s green credentials, it agreed to stop providing loans to fossil fuel projects by 2021. How quickly can we get others to follow suit, and shift the need to renewables

Figure 4: Production Gap Report, 2019

Sadly though, a recent report by SEI, The Production Gap Report, 2019 (see figure 4) shows clearly, we are a long way off. While many countries hail the great efforts to reduce climate impacts, with strong political speeches, behind the scenes we see many more simply ratcheting up their plans for coal, oil and gas consumption. We see countries working tirelessly to develop “National Determined Contributions” plans to fight against climate change, tasking everyone to make a change. In many cases some great commitments have been made, and more is needed. But behind this, governments hide the reality. The Production Gap report clearly shows that Governments are planning to produce about 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with a 2°C pathway and 120% more than would be consistent with a 1.5°C pathway. The continued expansion of fossil fuel production — and the widening of the global production gap — is underpinned by a combination of ambitious national growth plans, government subsidies to fossil fuel producers, and other forms of public finances to the industry. We can see from records that our emissions continue to rise despite all our attempts to slow it down, with 2018 recording the highest carbon emissions ever. How does this add up with plans for NDC’s? Who is behind this? How can this be allowed I wonder!

Let us not forget other critical impacts of this carbon and economic growth based pathway we find ourselves on. Just read the latest AQI (Air Quality Index) on your phone for the town you are in. I guess it’s not too low! For PM2.5, which causes deadly respiratory issues for many, anything over 25 μg/m3, according to WHO guidelines, is bad for your health. Readings over the past weeks in Bangkok alone have been in excess of 170. Chang Mai last year reached 800, Mumbai over 1000. We know the worst is yet to come. Air quality is directly related to a combination of energy and infrastructural production, along with fires (natural and manmade) and causes up to 4.2 million premature deaths globally, annually. Shifting to renewables will have a major impact on this.

Snapshot of SDG progress in 2018: Asia-Pacific region

Further, as temperatures rise, the phenomenon of urban heat islands is on the increase. Cities, because of the concrete infrastructure increase temperatures well above ambient levels. In Paris for example in 2017, the urban heat wave alone was responsible for over 15,000 deaths, mainly among the older generations, the vulnerable and marginalised communities. The health system couldn’t cope with the numbers of admissions for heat related illness. This phenomenon will continue to increase globally, with fears that with increased natural disasters, increased heat waves in Asian cities (and think of street vendors, of informal settlements, or the ageing society across Asia), that countries may not be able to cope with the numbers, and the health systems may crack under the pressure. Few, if any statistics exist today to really look at these numbers, but if Paris was so badly hit, think what it’s like is less prepared cities!. Again, we see that this is fuelled by the ongoing desire for carbon based economic growth. We clearly need a major mind shift to steer us away from the doom that our current path leads us towards.

However, we should remain optimistic, as we begin to see some governments adopting policies to restrict fossil fuel production, providing momentum and important lessons for broader adoption, with policies that aim to boost renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other low-carbon technologies. We see huge shifts in climate and sustainability financing, driving the change and opening amazing avenues to create new low-carbon opportunities. It is estimated that in ASEAN alone, US$ 7-8 trillion will be needed for new infrastructure over the next 2 decades, an increase of 5-6 times the current investment levels. The new types of finance and low carbon infrastructure creates tremendous opportunities to design, finance and manage a more sustainable future and links to the New Climate Economy plans to help us develop truly resilient and sustainable cities. It is not impossible; it is a time for us to believe in science and react to the facts that stare us in the face. Climate is changing, based on human induced growth, and as such it is our responsibility to change, and we all know we can!

Figure 6: Renewable energy price comparison

The times, they are a changing. We see societies striving for a better life, a quality of life, not driven by over consumption, but looking towards sustainable living. We see the world coming together to agree on sustainable development goals (though not all are reaching the desired targets as yet, see Figure 5), we see global media, driven by the youth movements around the work, leading news on climate impacts. Momentum for climate action is gearing up, whether within governments, in business and society – we all want a better future. Fossil fuel is seeing the end of the line, for sure, slowly but for sure, with divestments happening more and more (Ireland in 2019 was the first country to pass a bill to ensure all of its strategic investment funds sell off all investments in coal, oil, gas and peat), many more banks being stricter on investments and a variety of renewable energies, now competitive on price with coal and oil (figure 6). We see change coming from every angle, and that can only be good for us. However, we need to direct it, manage the change and ensure all are brought along this journey with gender equality and social equity, and that truly we leave no one behind.

So, while we see that as the weather outside is changing, based on rapid urban developments, on fossil fuel based economic growth, a skewed system of subsidies, a political economy of carbon, if you like, change is coming, and there is reason to hope. If we take the right approach, and seek to address the issues we have created, we have an historic opportunity now to continue to deliver inclusive economic growth, eliminate poverty from the face of the earth, and reduce the risks of climate change for all. It is firmly within our hands, if we want it. While we may have already passed the point where we simply cannot continue with the old patterns of economic development, the climate crisis that is confronting humanity, is an opportunity for innovation and community action. Evidence based-science is critical to influence decision-makers and needs to be used to positively influence the decisions being made to chart a low-carbon sustainable future for all. After all, at SEI, as an evidence-based science institution that bridges science, policy and practice, we believe and strive for, a more prosperous future for all.

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