Written by Mike Robinson, Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
It is hard to keep up with announcements in the news about or concerning Climate Change. 2018 is looking like the hottest year on record. The IPCC reports that we have 12 years to avoid 2°C and are failing to make sufficient emissions reductions globally. And when David Attenborough spoke at the 24th Annual Conference of World’s Governments in Katowice Poland (COP24), he told the conference that “if we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon”. Although his words were widely published, the most reported speeches of the event are not his, but are rather those from the previously unknown Greta Thunberg, a 15 year old Swedish schoolgirl, who has become the voice of disengaged youth – angry at the direction grown-ups are choosing to take and our refusal to listen to the science and act on it.
Greta has spoken at rallies throughout Scandinavia where she has insisted “facts don’t matter any more, politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?” She has a point. Other school pupils began to follow her lone example by beginning to ‘strike’ every Friday and, instead, sitting in silent protest outside the Swedish parliament. But her example has now spread further, and more than 20,000 students in over 270 towns and cities worldwide have now refused to go to school, most recently as far afield as Australia.
It feels that as the world heats up, most of our political leaders are ever more distracted by protectionism, division and xenophobia. Perhaps it is inevitable that as the urgency of this issue increases, those that are paying attention to this issue are getting more heated too.
The job of Katowice COP24 is to get governments around the world to commit to do more to cut back on emissions. The Paris Climate Agreement in 2016 relied on each government to voluntarily commit to making reductions. But emissions are still going up and the world is getting hotter.
According to the 9th UNEP “Emissions Gap Report” these voluntary commitments would still lead to a 3-4oC rise in global temperatures, and this is clearly not good enough. The science clearly shows anything over 1.5oC to 2 oC would be disastrous, and Paris stated a target of only a 1.5oC rise as the acceptable target. More sobering still, most countries are not even on track to deliver against these promises by 2030; current trends would take us closer to 4-5 oC.
I am not surprised young people are angry. We are way beyond being sustainable. Sustainability is about taking things out at no greater a rate than they can replenish. And it is about ensuring that our actions are not just financially sustainable, but are also socially beneficial and environmentally sustainable too. But by any measure we have been destroying the environment at an unsustainable rate for decades and this is accelerating. It is debatable how socially beneficial many of our actions are. But worryingly, even on the much over-emphasised measure of economic sustainability we are failing. The growth in our economy of the last two decades is built largely on debt, borrowing from the future to fund the present. We have failed to balance these three fundamental pillars of sustainability and in the process burdened the current and future generations with massive environmental and financial debt. Wouldn’t you be angry?
Scotland (and the UK to a degree) does at least show ambition to lead some of this change. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, spoke at Katowice too. “Scotland has been widely praised internationally for our work to tackle climate change and I am absolutely determined that there will be no let-up in our efforts. It requires everyone in society – individuals, businesses and governments – to play their part…” But how we square this long term ambition with short term economic gains, such as the newly announced Shetland Glendronach gas field, will test our genuine political will over the coming months and years.
On the positive, there is a new Scottish climate Act expected in 2019 which has the stated aim of increasing the targeted ambition in this country. Campaigners want it to remain ambitious, demanding 100% emissions reductions by 2050 at the latest. Scottish Government has declared that 90% is sufficient. Greta Thunberg’s Sweden has already set a target of 100% reductions by 2045, so Scotland may well lose its world leading status. Whether it is 90% or 100%, and exactly when, the direction of travel is clear, and this narrow debate is in danger of becoming a very one-dimensional discussion. The real strength in the 2009 Act were the early targets and the extra amendments which led to many other positive measures, such as public bodies duties. It would be a shame to miss this opportunity in the 2019 act. Is there room for infrastructure investments, transport gains and nitrogen budgets etc., as well as clear and ambitious 2030 and 2040 targets?
This next year, as we head towards 2020, is going to be critical in terms of commitments and action by governments, businesses and individuals. The world will almost certainly get hotter over this period. And unless we start seeing even more ambition in tackling climate change, the demand for credible responses, especially from our younger people, is also likely to get ever more heated.