Climate change updates: implications for local action
Climate change updates: implications for local action
(A version of this piece was originally published on the website of Climate:Change, a new independent and non-partisan think tank promoting ideas, policy and action for socially inclusive climate solutions in Brighton and Hove. See here. I am the Co-Chair)
Autumn is the season of mellow fruitfulness – and of alarming reports on climate change. This is because of the timing of the COP, the annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Everyone wants to update their data and make their views known. See the footnote* for examples, and follow Carbon Brief for excellent reporting and insight. Here I summarise some key points and draw out seven lessons for Brighton and Hove. I have also pasted in some Figures, mainly from the one update report I am involved in, the UN Environment Emissions Gap Report; but also one figure from the State of Climate Action Report.
The world faces a climate emergency
Methodologies differ slightly, and each report has its own focus, but the overall messages are consistent. Annual Green House Gas emissions are rising, not falling. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are increasing, not stabilising. Extreme weather events are proliferating, not abating. An increase in global temperature above the pre-industrial mean has already occurred, with further increase built in. The available carbon budget is shrinking. Cuts need to be faster. And the scale of resources to tackle the problem is sadly absent. There is no doubt that the world faces a climate emergency.
As a reminder, the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement was to ‘limit global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees’. So, how are we doing? Well, the trend temperature increase has already reached over 1.1 degrees, with spikes above that level. In 2023, until the beginning of October, 86 days were recorded with temperatures over 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. September was the hottest recorded month, with global average temperatures 1.8°C above pre-industrial levels.
Global emissions are still rising: by 1.2% in 2022 (Figure 1 below, and a sectoral breakdown in Figure 2). As a result, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise as well, to 417 parts per million in 2022, 50% above pre-industrial levels; 2023 will be higher.
Not all countries have made and are making the same contribution to warming; and not all individuals either. Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have contributed only 4% to historic emissions. Today, emissions in the United States and Russia are over double the world average of 6.5 tCO2e per person per year, while those in India remain under half of that. The G20 as a whole averaged 7.9 tCO2e, whereas Least Developed Countries averaged 2.2 tCO2e (Figures 3 and 4 below). And looking at income and wealth, the global top 10% of individuals (found in both rich and poor countries) contributed 45-49% of total global emissions, while the bottom 50% emitted only 7%-13% of the total. By the way, an income of about £34,000 puts someone among the 570 million adults who make up the top 10% of the world population.
Temperature is closely related to CO2 emissions. The budget available to hold warming to the Paris goals is shrinking fast. A recent update showed that the remaining budget to hold warming to 1.5 degrees this century with a 67% probability of success was only 150 Gigatons of CO2, and for 2 degrees 950 Gt. CO2 emissions in 2022 were around 40 Gt. You can do the maths. The UNEPUnited Nations Environment Programme Emissions Gap Report says that even under the most optimistic assumptions about future cuts, and lowering the probability to 50% rather than 67%, there is still only a 14% chance of holding warming to 1.5 degrees during this century (Figure 5 below).
The tightening budget makes ever more urgent the debates which have taken place for years in the climate world and at the annual COP (Conference of the Parties) meetings of the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). Can cuts be made quickly enough? By whom should cuts be made? How can cuts be made in ways which allow the poorest people in the world to access the energy they need? Will developing and emerging economies be able to pay to help their populations adapt to climate change – and will they be compensated for the ‘loss and damage’ caused by climate change? Further, how will those countries be supported in making the required transition to renewable energy?
Seven implications for local action
From a local perspective, seven points stand out:
First, it may or may not be too late to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, but every tiny increment of a degree matters: for long term trends like sea level rise, as well as the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. That is why we locally must play our part.
Second, if we care about our local community, we need to understand and engage with climate change globally. We need to get to grips with the climate models and what they mean; and we need to make room in our work to try and influence national and international policy. It may be a good idea to ‘think global and act local’, but we also need to ‘think global and act global’.
Third, the climate emergency is a global collective action problem. What we do matters, but so do the decisions China makes, and India, and Brazil, and South Africa – and everyone. We are all dependent on each other, so both altruism and self-interest require cooperation. How do we do that? We could start by joining one of the networks that link environmentally active communities around the world, like C40 Cities.
Fourth, of course ‘we’ have to do more, cutting emissions as well as providing financial and technical support to other countries. As a rich country, we have to cut emissions faster than a poorer country, so as to give a larger share of the global commons to the latter. It may well be that the target recommended by the Committee on Climate Change and accepted by the Government, of a cut to 78% below 1990 levels by 2035 and net zero by 2050, is not ambitious enough. But what is actually feasible, and what would more ambition mean for Brighton and Hove? Those are questions to be answered by local plans.
Fifth, the ‘we’ who have to do most are those with the hghest emissions. Carbon inequality is high in most communities, as it is globally (see the Place-Based Carbon Calculator and the discussion at our launch event) That means shaping climate policy in such a way as not to penalise the less well-off. It also means the better off taking personal responsibility for their emissions. That is why individual or household footprinting is a useful tool.
Sixth, climate change is already here, and more is coming. We have to invest in adaptation. Nature-based solutions, like reforestation and better management of community resources, can offer a win-win, contributing to both mitigation and adaptation.
A final point is that winning the argument on climate change needs optimism not despair – and there are positive elements to cling onto. The same UNEPUnited Nations Environment Programme report which says there is only a 14% chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees says that there is a 66% chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees – if all short and long term pledges are met. There are many co-benefits to climate action in Brighton and Hove, including clean air, less congestion and better health. And climate action will bring new new jobs.
Note: All data not separately referenced can be found in the UN Environment Emissions Gap Report 2023.
*The World Meteorological Organisation has updated its State of the Global Climate Report and Greenhouse Gas Bulletin; the UN Climate Change Secretariat has produced a Synthesis Report of progress against commitments; the International Energy Agency has published the World Energy Outlook; the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) has produced regular updates; the Climate Action Tracker has updated its estimates; a group of think-tanks under the umbrella of the Systems Change Lab has published the State of Climate Action; Oxfam has a new report on consumption emissions; and UN Environment has produced three ‘Gap’ Reports: the Adaptation Gap Report, the Production Gap Report, and the flagship Emissions Gap Report. As noted, follow Carbon Brief for excellent insights on all of these.
Figures 1, 3, 4 and 5 from the UN Environment Emissions Gap 2023; Figure 2 from the State of Climate Action 2023.
1. Total net anthropogenic GHG emissions, 1990–2022
2. Global net anthropogenic GHG emissions by sector in 2021
3 Emissions trends of major emitters.
4. GHG emissions across different groups of households (2019)
5. Temperature implications of key scenarios and the associated risks of extreme events