Before March 2020, very few people in the world could say they had heard or used the word “lockdown” in the past 24 hours. Six months later, we have all grown accustomed to hearing about lockdowns every day of our lives, even if we don’t live in English-speaking countries. No commuting to work, no school, no gym and no sports, no crowded restaurants and bars, no holidays - the list of restrictions could go on. In nearly every country in the world, life seemed to pause for a period: no cars in the street, no planes in the sky, no light in office buildings. In the absence of any other reason to be cheerful, a hopeful consideration started to circulate on news outlets and social media: at least the planet can breathe a little. Videos showing wild animals taking over started to populate everyone’s news feed, and the most optimistic commentators started to wonder about the positive impacts of lockdowns on global heating. If people are just staying at home and the economy has stopped, they argued, emissions of greenhouse gases (which are responsible for heating the planet) must have reduced drastically. Regrettably, the hopes of many environmentalists were dashed by post-lockdown measurements, which showed that, at best, a 7% reduction in carbon emissions may be achieved by the end of this year. If you stop the entire economy for several months you only get a minimal reduction in emissions - this is enough to show how profound a change is required to avert the impending climate catastrophe.
Although lockdowns have not proven very effective in countering global heating, the pandemic has certainly given new fuel to the heated debate on the climate crisis. Not only has it shown what enormous changes to our lifestyle are required when the forces of nature fall out of our control, but also it has given us an opportunity to think about where we should be heading as a global society. With all major economies in crisis, governments around the world are promising an unprecedented wave of investment to finance the recovery. Fortunately for the planet and all its inhabitants, in many cases the announcement of these funds has come together with a renewed commitment to transition to a green economy. China has recently pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060, while the European Union has raised its ambitions by proposing a 60% cut in emissions by 2030, on course for carbon neutrality in 2050. This means that two of the world’s three biggest emitters are now pledging stronger action than ever before (while the USA, led by climate skeptic President Donald Trump, are scheduled to withdraw from any commitments in November this year).
But is this enough? Why do we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and does it matter how fast we do it? There is much talk about ‘carbon neutrality’, but what does this mean exactly? To answer such questions, the United Nations (UN) has created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which provides world leaders with the knowledge required to tackle climate change. The IPCC, set up in 1988, is one of the greatest examples of scientific collaboration in world history: researchers from most countries in the world come together to review all the available evidence on climate change and publish reports that are agreed to by all members. In 2018, at the request of the UN countries gathered in Paris in 2015 to discuss climate change, the IPCC published its latest Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Guided by the findings of this report, we can begin to understand if the commitments made by leading economies such as China and the EU are ambitious enough to avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis.
Global heating: the basics
The Earth is heating up because the world economy is powered by burning coal, oil and gas, which releases gases in the atmosphere that increase the intensity of the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon that keeps the Earth warm by trapping sun rays reflected by the planet’s surface. However, as more greenhouse gases end up in the atmosphere, more sun rays remain trapped, and this raises the average temperature of the planet. The three greenhouse gases produced in great quantities by human activities are carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is by far the most abundant and so it’s taken as a reference, and often just shortened to “carbon” for ease of use.
Because human activities started emitting these gases abundantly only after the industrial revolution took off in the 1800s, the IPCC measures the extent of global heating by comparing today’s average global temperature with that of 1850. The 2018 Special Report starts off by reminding us that the planet has already warmed up by 1°C since then. It seems like a ridiculous amount to get worried, yet all scientists in the world agree that if the average global temperature rises by more than 2°C, Very Bad Things will happen. The list of risks is quite well known to everyone by now, and the task of imagining them has been made easier by the events of the latest years: tremendous forest fires in California, in Australia and in the Amazon; ice melting in the Arctic and the consequent rising sea levels; hot days everywhere; floods and heavy rain; loss of biodiversity and disruption to key ecosystems sustaining life on the planet.
The IPCC’s Special Report goes a step further, and suggests that keeping the warming below 1.5°C instead of 2°C by the year 2100 would be a very good idea. The likelihood of hot extremes, heavy precipitation and droughts is significantly reduced if we manage to keep the temperature lower, thus preventing the suffering of millions of people around the world. But this means that global efforts to reduce carbon emissions must increase significantly compared to what has been achieved in the last few decades.
Our carbon budget
Both the carbon emitted in the past and what we are emitting now contribute to temperature rise both today and in the future, because carbon remains in the atmosphere for a very long time. Therefore, it matters how much carbon we put in the atmosphere overall. Thanks to the scientific models that link concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to temperature increase, we can calculate what is usually called our “carbon budget”, i.e. the amount of carbon we can afford to emit to stay below an agreed temperature increase. Given that we want to stay below 1.5°C, what is our carbon budget?
Let’s do some simple arithmetic. In the Special Report, the IPCC notes that we have already emitted approximately 2200 billion tons of carbon. A ton is roughly the weight of a passenger car. At the current level, we add to this approximately 40 billion tons of carbon every year. That’s more than 5 tons of gas per person, which is equivalent to the weight of approximately 5 cars. If we want to be reasonably sure to stay below 1.5°C , the IPCC estimates that we have around 500 billion tons of carbon left to emit: that’s our budget. At the current level of emissions, then, we would finish our budget in 500/40 = 12 years approximately, i.e. in 2032. That would set us on course to reach much higher temperatures by the end of the century, with the list of Very Bad Things looming over us.
[Image caption]: Historically, Europe and the United States have emitted the most carbon, but China has now taken the lead, and developing countries contribute a significant portion of global annual emissions.
What we need to do, then, is reduce the amount of emissions globally. By how much? The 2015 Paris Agreement was the latest major agreement between UN countries to mitigate global heating, but no mechanism was agreed to force individual countries to set a specific emissions target. An often-reported recommendation is to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, which means emitting net 0 billions of tons of carbon by 2050. This implies that in 30 years we must slash all of our 40 billion tons. We could do so by decreasing emissions by the same amount every year, which would give us a target of 33% reduction every decade. This is already an ambitious target, considering that emissions have increased by about 20% on average in the last three decades. And yet, it would not even guarantee we stay within our carbon budget. What matters is the sum of all emissions across the years: if we decreased emissions at a constant rate from today to reach net zero in 2050, our cumulative emissions would exceed our carbon budget.
So, we have to do even better. There are two options. Either we maintain a steady rate of decrease in emissions, but reach carbon neutrality earlier; or we make the rate of decrease faster at the start and reach carbon neutrality in 2050, but having emitted less carbon overall. The latter option is what the IPCC suggests in its Special Report when it discusses emission pathways: it calls on countries to start reducing emissions drastically now, and then relax the rate at which emissions are reduced. And this is why executive government bodies such as the EU Commission set intermediate targets. If the whole world adopted the EU’s target (obtaining a 60% reduction by 2030, and then carbon neutrality in 2050), the emission pathway would be compatible with warming of 1.5°C. But China’s emissions are going to increase at least until 2030, and the US is currently behaving as if the problem did not exist. Indeed, the IPCC Special Report makes it very clear that the mitigation ambitions stated by countries in Paris will not be enough to keep warming below 1.5°C.
[Image caption]: To keep global warming below 1.5°C, we must stay within our carbon budget: the sum of all our emissions over time. This means we must reduce global carbon emissions very fast.
Why we need bolder action from the EU
The climate crisis is a global problem, and efforts in understanding and responding to it involve the use of knowledge and skill in all fields of human development. I have tried to summarise where we are at the moment and I hope to have clarified how far the world’s response is from what it should be according to the available evidence. The reasons behind this shocking lack of action are various and worth delving into, but I would like to end the article by pointing out two reasons why developed economies such as the European Union should aim to go even beyond what the IPCC recommendations are for the global effort against climate change. .
The first is scientific in nature. We tend to think of climate change as a linear, progressive process: if the temperature rises by twice as much as a set target, the impacts on human activities will be twice as bad. This is not how the climate works: an increase in temperature may bring the climate to a tipping point, i.e. a point when an abrupt change occurs. This is because of climatic feedback loops. The best example of a feedback loop is melting ice in the Arctic. Ice is white, so it reflects light very well; as temperature rises, ice melts into darker water, so less light is reflected, more light is absorbed, and the temperature rises further. This may bring about unpredictably fast changes in the climate, to which we would not be able to adapt without terrible losses. There are at least four other major climatic feedback loops known: forest fires putting carbon into the atmosphere, melting permafrost releasing methane, freshwater bodies also releasing methane, and forest dieback leading to loss of precious carbon-absorbing trees. The danger posed by these loops is hard to predict, so it is paramount that we prevent global heating from overshooting to higher temperatures: this calls on world leaders to act now rather than later.
Secondly, there is an aspect of climate change that relates to social justice. The countries that have historically emitted the most carbon (i.e. developed countries such as the US, the EU and Japan) must be responsible for the greatest efforts in reducing their emissions. If social justice is important to us, we also need to consider that the worst effects of the climate crisis will be felt by the poorer countries, which have only contributed in minimal part to the problem. Developed economies are in the best position to lead the way in taking action. On the one hand, they can finance the technological innovations required to transition to green power. On the other hand, because their wealth already ensures the wellbeing of the vast majority of the population, they can promote less carbon-intensive lifestyles.
[Image caption]: Since the industrial revolution, European countries and the US have emitted the most carbon.
What we should expect from the European Union, then, is an even greater ambition than the global targets suggest. Many large economies such as the US, Russia and Japan are completely failing to rise up to the challenge. In this context, there is no denying that the new targets recently announced by the EU are a beacon of light in the dark. But if the bloc’s continued economic and political investments in the ideal of a green transition were strengthened further, this would put it in a position of economic and moral leadership that is destined to be envied and emulated by other countries. The success of any idea we may have that stems from the European project will be measured, in large part, by the EU’s ability to take leadership in the most difficult global challenge we face.