As the world moves into the 2020s climate change has risen to the top of the global risk agenda. Global emissions continue to rise in spite of increasing awareness of climate change and acceptance behind the science. Bluntly speaking unless emissions peak very soon the world faces a bleak future.
Below I look at six trends which will shape climate change in the next ten years.
When will carbon emissions peak?
Carbon emissions is the key metric that will impact climate change. Right now global emissions continue to rise. But if emissions can be rapidly curbed quickly then climate change will be far less severe.
Global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are driven by a lot of different factor, energy use, agriculture, forest loss and growth….
Energy use is central to GHG emissions. Changing energy use is key to controlling emissions. As renewable energy sources become more widespread and continue to fall in cost their take up increases and a decarbonised world seems possible.
But this optimism is tempered by the fact that overall energy use continues to grow across the globe so coal, gas and oil plants continue to be built which keeps GHG emissions high. Fossil fuels continue to receive widespread political support and subsidies from governments across the globe.
The US oil and gas industry holds immense lobbying power over its government stopping faster shifts to renewables. Similarly in China the coal industry is extremely influential – as it provides most of the country’s energy. Taking on powerful vested interests such as these, as well as reducing consumption and energy use are all crucial in curbing fossil fuels.
The Future of Forests
The world’s forests are a huge store of carbon, burning wood releases carbon – the main greenhouse gas, while planting trees absorbs carbon. Unfortunately the world’s forests continue to be destroyed mainly through clearing for farmland. Increased global consumption and population growth threaten forests from the Amazon to the Congo to Indonesia.
Some governments are taking action such as the EU trying to make Asian palm oil imports sustainable and by planting new trees and forests but the threat to Amazon and other tropical forests remains huge.
Some politicians such as Brazilian President Bolsonaro appear to be actively encouraging the destruction of forests. Preventing forest loss and rewilding degraded landscapes is a key plank in the fight against emissions
Which Way Will China & Asia Go ?
Carbon emissions in many developed countries such as the UK are trending downwards as they use more renewable energy, experience flat economic growth and have outsourced much manufacturing to emerging economies.
The developing world is a different story, across China, India, Indonesia and other developing countries, coal plants continue to be built as a cheap solution to fast industrialising nations.
Coal use has a catastrophic impact on climate as well as being a major pollutant. Major cities in India are choked from car and coal fumes, racking up some of the worst pollution levels ever recorded.
There are signs of hope, renewable energy use is booming in China and India, more major banks are backing away from financing coal and oil plants as they see that coal and oil assets are riskier than ever.
Global Public Response
As extreme weather events driven by climate change increase in number and intensity, will this impel the public to put more pressure on governments to act on climate change. Or will it result in apathy and resignation?
The Australian wildfires which ravaged the country have sparked a public outcry in one of the world’s biggest climate laggards in terms of policy. But will this translate into changes in government policy?
Climate change suffers from the free rider problem. If one country cuts its greenhouse gas emissions it has no overall effect while other countries can continue with their own destructive policies without short term loss. The political cycle in most countries does not reward long term planning. Far sighted governments with strong climate policies are unlikely to be rewarded in elections. Unfortunately this short term thinking will eventually have a devastating effect on the whole globe.
As the effects of climate breakdown hits home will consumers take measures such as reducing fuel and meat consumption and pressuring politicians for change. This remains to be seen.
Can New Technology Help?
The emergence of cost effective renewable energy technology has been one of the decade biggest bright spots. The next big hope is that new battery technology will make large scale energy storage more feasible. This will remove the worry that energy will be unavailable when the sun is not shining or wind not blowing.
One unproven technology at scale but which would be game changer is carbon capture. Much hyped it has failed to deliver so far, but the ability to suck in carbon from the atmosphere we could start to reverse the impact of climate breakdown.