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Inaction over climate change is shameful: Martin Wolf

Martin Wolf, former senior World Bank economist who left after becoming disillusioned with its policies, reminds readers that a goal of the Paris agreement of 2015 was to limit the global average temperature rise to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. He comments:

“Achieving it means drastic reductions in emissions from now. This is very unlikely to happen. That is no longer because it is technically impossible. It is because it is politically painful.

He refers to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the implications of warming of just 1.5C, making plain the risks the world runs if this limit is ignored and concluding that life will survive, but not life as we know it, continuing:

“We are the shapers of the planet now. This ought to transform how we think. Unfortunately, it has not”.

Wolf believes that the theoretical and empirical arguments for man-made climate change are overwhelming, supporting this and other points made with graphs in his recent Financial Times article. The rise in average temperatures above the pre-industrial average is already about 1C. That shows how hard it will be to keep the final increase below 1.5C, or even 2C. Under the “nationally determined contributions”, he adds, we are in fact on a track towards warming of 3-4C by 2100.

if we are to have a high chance of keeping the ultimate temperature rise to below 1.5C:

  • net global CO2 emissions would need to fall to zero not long after 2040
  • and other sources of climate change — emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, for example — would also need to fall from 2030.

Emissions from industry would need to fall by 75-90 per cent by 2050, relative to 2010. This would need a combination of electrification, hydrogen and product substitution. These options are technically proven, but their deployment on a planetary scale is another matter. Emissions reductions by efficiency improvement will be inadequate.

(Ed) One reservation: many will disagree with Wolf’s assertion that generating energy from bio-based feedstocks is necessary and that agriculture will need to shift to production of energy crops on a huge scale.

He calls for planning changes in urban infrastructure and carbon capture and storage on a large scale, shifting the world on to a different investment and growth path right now and commenting, “This is more technically possible than we used to think. But it is politically highly challenging”.

The natural tendencies are either to do nothing, while insisting there is no problem, or to agree there is a problem, while merely pretending to act. It is not clear which form of obfuscation is worse.

Wolf points out that to preserve our planet requires co-operative effort on a planetary scale – a challenge human beings have historically only met in times of war. Climate change involves huge distributional issues between countries that caused the problem and those that did not, and, not least, between people today, who make the decisions, and people tomorrow, who suffer the results.

He warns that the chances of co-operative action seem near zero in today’s nationalistic world . . . Donald Trump has already repudiated the US pledge – other countries may fail, too:

“It is five minutes to midnight on climate change. We will have to alter our trajectory very quickly but appear to be set on running an irreversible bet on our ability to manage the consequences of a far bigger rise even than 2C, risking a world of runaway — and unmanageable — climate chaos.

“Our progeny will see this as a crime”.