A giant tanker ship carrying 150,000 cubic metres of gas left Norway earlier this month for Japan. The vessel, Ob River, is taking a short cut that will trim several thousand kilometres off the trip. Its historic voyage would, just a decade ago would have been inconceivable even in high summer. The Ob River is travelling through the remnants of the once-frozen Arctic ocean – in the depths of winter.
While 17,000 politicians, NGOs and policymakers gather this week in Doha for the 18th annual talking shop of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), back in the real world, temperatures are rising, ice is melting relentlessly and the planet is quickly slipping into a new, chaotic climatic era that scientific studies have been warning about for decades.
Three separate major reports this month, from the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the European Environment Agency all point to the same stark conclusion: the climate crisis is rapidly turning into an planetary emergency that is fast moving beyond humanity’s ability to contain, let alone reverse, it.
“This isn’t about shock tactics, it’s simple maths”, according to Leo Johnson of PwC. “One thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a (dangerously) warming world – not just 2C, but 4C, and, at our current rates, 6C.”
Even at 2C over pre-industrial levels, the world is likely to have stepped into the abyss of irreversible climate disruption. As that approaches 4-6C, “we are passing through the gates of hell” in the words of one senior scientist. The World Bank Report warned that India would lose half its grain crops and Africa a third of its arable land at just 2C global average temperature increase.
Drought and famines will quickly spread into what are today some of the world’s most important food-producing regions – northern China, the US mid-west, much of the Middle East, as well as India and Pakistan are all facing collapse in water supplies within 10-20 years.
PwC calculates that, to have a 50:50 chance of avoiding the 2C climate ‘red line’, annual carbon emissions reductions of 5.1 per cent will have to be achieved, year on year from now until 2050. In reality, emissions are heading in the opposite direction, currently growing at over 2.5 per cent annually. Not since World War Two have global emissions ever actually declined by this level, and even then, it was for five, not 40 years.
“The new data provides further evidence that the door to a 2C trajectory is about to close”, Fatih Birol, chief economist with the International Energy agency said recently. John Steinbruner, lead author of a study for the US Central Intelligence Agency commented: “climate extremes are going to be more frequent…we’re also saying it could get a whole lot worse”.
The US military, not renowned for environmental alarmism, is now bracing for the collapse of multiple states, as floods, famine and disease triggers involuntary mass migration across international borders, on a scale that will rapidly overwhelm any capacity to respond. Ironically, publication of this CIA study was delayed by 10 days as Hurricane Sandy shut down the US Federal government last month.
“We’re on track for a 4C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise,” according to the World Bank report entitled ‘Turn Down the Heat’. A 4C rise this century is “a doomsday scenario”, World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim acknowledged glumly.
The UN conference in Doha comes just weeks after the expiry of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which has had only marginal impact in curbing global emissions. There is nothing on the table at Doha that will have any material impact on staving off calamity. The host country, Qatar, is the perfect metaphor for the paradox of progress, as it depends for its wealth on vast reserves of climate-destroying fossil fuels. Scientists estimate that 80 per cent of all known fossil fuel reserves (worth some $20 trillion) must remain in the ground if disaster is to be averted.
We now have no choice but to forego the easy wealth that comes from burning this vast carbon store and instead switch on a massive scale to low-carbon sources, such as renewables and nuclear power, as well as drastic improvements in energy efficiency. Like it or not, this also means the effective winding down of consumption-based capitalism and big drops in living standards.
Once we finally grasp that the consequences of ‘business as usual’ are unimaginably grim, political and economic changes that today seem unthinkable may soon be inevitable. The global slave trade went, in a matter of years, from an indispensable pillar of the world economy to being morally repulsive. To have a future, humanity’s relationships with fossil energy may very soon have to undergo a similar transformation.
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator.
He is on Twitter: @think_or_swim