The cost of failure

In this context those who argue that our contribution to global emissions as a country is relatively small should be reminded that our emissions are at par with those emitted by any other medium sized city in mainland Europe.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warns that global average temperatures are estimated to rise 1.5 degrees Celsius above the world’s pre-industrial levels, around “the first half of the 2030s” if humans continue to burn coal, oil and natural gas. Beyond that point, scientists say, the impacts of catastrophic heat waves, flooding, drought, crop failures and species extinction become significantly harder for humanity to handle.

The new IPCC report says that only if industrialized nations join together immediately to slash greenhouse gases roughly in half by 2030, and then stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere altogether by the early 2050, will the world have a 50% chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

In the wake of this grim scenario  UN secretary-general, António Guterres has called on developed countries to  bring forward their commitments on reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions, from 2050 to “as close as possible to 2040”, said Guterres. Guterres also called for developed countries to phase out coal by 2030, and all others by 2040. He called for no new licensing or funding of oil and gas projects, based on the findings of the International Energy Agency that all new oil and gas development must cease for the world to limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

One of the greatest risks is that governments in rich countries grappling with inflation and the cost of the war in Ukraine,   will get resigned to an inevitable catastrophe.  But this would be a veritable crime against humanity condemning millions particularly in the poorest countries to death, instability and forced immigration. And while the cost to avoid catastrophe is huge, the cost of failure is much bigger.

The scale of the challenge facing the world is considerable.  Chris Jones, of the Met Office Hadley Centre, a member of the report’s core writing team, pointed out that emissions fell by 6% in 2020 owing to the Covid-19 lockdowns, and a similar fall would be needed each year for the next decade.   

Obviously the world cannot afford to go on lockdown for the next decade and public investments in renewables and energy efficiency are the only way forward.  And while governments in richer countries, have to be honest with electorates that life cannot go on as before, changes have to be socially fair to avoid a backlash and a resurgence of climate scepticism deployed by short sighted populists who risk derailing effective commitments to address the greatest global challenge ever.  Recent election results in the Netherlands which saw massive gains by a farmers’ party in the senate  opposed to government plans to slash nitrogen emissions by dramatically reducing livestock numbers is a sign of the difficulties ahead.

For sure climate change represents a  big test for democratic decision making.  For in the face of a countdown to extinction, democrats need to show both resolve and empathy.  But none are possible without the monies required.

But there is no way to go about it.  National governments are too small to address this problem alone and we cannot rely on private funds to finance such an epochal change.  In short the only way out of this quandary is a multilateral approach and a commitment to finance the required changes. The IPCC estimates that investment in climate mitigation and adaptation is three to six  times lower than where it needs to be to reach the goal of limiting temperature rises to 1.5C.   Private  companies won’t risk spending as the payback may take years, or never arise. That is why there is no alternative to increased state spending in both research and assisting the most vulnerable categories in society to make .

As things stand although the EU’s commitment to cut net emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and reach climate neutrality by 2050 put it the forefront of the battle against climate change, the latest IPCC report suggests that this is not enough to fend off the bleak scenario in front of us.  But this is even more challenging in view of the disruption in energy provision triggered by the war in Ukraine which forced leading members like Germany to delay plans to shut down coal fired power stations.

In the face of the risks we face, Europeans must show a mix of principled commitment to green solutions  and a rational pragmatism informed by science.  In a sign of the times the Finnish Green Party (and leading international green voices like George Monbiot) have dropped their complete opposition to nuclear power, envisaging a role for nuclear energy , especially in the shape of smaller modular reactors, in the transition to a non fossil fuel economy.  At the same time we need to be wary of quick fixes like carbon capture and grey/blue hydrogen which risk prolonging our dependency on fossil fuel infrastructure.  Even more questionable but hard to avoid in the absence of any significant progress in the next decade, would be resorting to climate engineering which may well have unforeseen consequences.  Moreover radical life style changes may also be part of the solution.  For example a transition to lab grown meat could be the key to reducing methane emissions. Yet ensuring that these changes are affordable and do not end up impoverishing rural areas, is one of the greatest challenges of our times.

Malta in line with the EU will also have to accelerate its plans for carbon neutrality and to move away from our near total dependency on fossil fuels which accounts for both most of the energy produced in our power stations and also for most of the energy imported through the interconnector.  In this sense Malta has been overtaken by the fast pace of history.  Just a decade ago we were still burning heavy fuel oil which contributes to higher emissions than our current reliance on LNG.  But ten years later we have no choice but to consider LNG as a transitional fuel towards to a more energy efficient economy fuelled by a mix of renewable sources of locally produced and imported  solar and wind energy and green hydrogen. Much more can be done in ensuring that all new buildings are energy efficient and eventually carbon neutral. In this context those who argue that our contribution to global emissions as a country is relatively small should be reminded that our emissions are at par with those emitted by any other medium sized city in mainland Europe.