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We Did Start the Fire

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Dr Simon Clark

Dr Simon Clark, Climate Scientist, Science Communicator and author of Firmament: The Hidden Science of Weather, Climate Change and the Air That Surrounds Us

This article will appear in the next edition of the Chamber Journal, which will be released on 15th December. To receive your free copy, sign up here.

In 2022, the world finds itself in a perilous position. We have identified that the planet is, on average, warming due to our industrial activities and that the window to limit this warming to just 1.5 °C or even 2°C this century, is shrinking rapidly. However, it is important to understand that the atmosphere does not care about arbitrary milestones. Every tenth of a degree of warming is bad news. Every tenth of a degree exacerbates extreme weather events and increases the likelihood of tipping points in the climate system being reached.

The UK’s Role

Like it or not, the UK has played a large role in creating this climate crisis. The modern explosion of energy use began with the invention and refinement of the steam engine by Newcomen and Watt, initially powered by British coal. For the first century and a half of the industrial era, the UK was responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other nation and today, some 4% of all the anthropogenic carbon ever emitted into the atmosphere came from these islands. While today, we are responsible for around 1% of global emissions, this historical context is important. If someone came into your house and started a fire, then fed it fuel for a long time, even if others arrived more recently and fed it more aggressively, you would still expect that initial perpetrator to take some responsibility.

This all means that the UK has to provide leadership at the Conference of Parties (COP) summits. Has the UK provided leadership so far? COP26, held in Glasgow last year, was a test of the UK’s position and was something of a fiasco. Notably less transparent and inclusive than previous events, it was dogged by accusations of corporate and governmental greenwashing. Big policy announcements were made by many nations—notably, India committed to net zero by 2070 and specific cuts in methane emissions were announced by the US and EU—but, the biggest disappointment came from coal. At COP22 in 2017, the UK pushed for a rapid abandonment of coal as a power source, yet just four years later was forced—as host—to significantly water down the final text of the Glasgow climate pact. “Phasing out” of coal became “phasing down” of coal. An appeasement that could set climate action back by decades

The UK also has a mixed performance record at previous COPs. In Katowice and Paris, large commitments were made but with relatively unambitious timeframes. At the 2017 COP in Bonn, the UK stepped up to fill the funding shortfall of the IPCC left by the Trump administration and pushed for the rapid abandonment of coal. Taken together with the disappointing conclusion of COP26, the UK can be seen as a nation in the middle of the pack, keeping up with the commitments of other industrialised nations but not providing effective leadership in words or deeds. Frankly, no nation is.

Changing Climate

Could this time be different though? I am writing this as the COP27 summit wraps up, it is too early to say what the significant outcomes will be. I have two hopes for this conference and the future in general. Firstly, stronger language around coal, forming part of stronger national emissions commitments for 2030. Secondly, rigorous systems of global climate finance being implemented, such that those countries who have benefitted the most from dirty energy, will support the clean development of other nations on the front lines of the crisis. Financing clean energy and the adaptation to a changed climate, either on a country-to-country basis or as a collective entity such as the Adaptation Fund.

The UK can lead in both regards by continuing to press for a phase-out of coal, by setting out a clear domestic pathway to net zero within decades and by committing a greater share of GDP to climate aid. There will be those who say this is expensive virtue signalling, or unnecessary given our current contributions to global emissions. I would counter that this is instead, an opportunity to show global leadership, recognise our historic role in this crisis and provide an example for other countries to live up to.

The agreements of COP27, or any international climate conference, do not need to be perfect. They don’t need to limit us to 1.5 °C. Instead, they need to limit the warming by as much as possible. They need to do anything to limit greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation, transport, heating and agriculture. Every tenth of a degree counts. But make no mistake, the weaker the text from Sharm el-Sheikh, the worse the world will be for our children.

The sweeping changes necessary for such action, require leadership. As a scientist, student of history and global citizen, I hope the UK provides it.

Next year Curia will be launching a Sustainability Commission, to find out more, get in touch at team@curiauk.com.

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