But maybe he too, like many of us, has been appalled by the multiple images on our TV screens since 2015 of the world on fire in one country, underwater in another, drought-ridden. in a third, and shaken by abnormal weather elsewhere.
It gives me no pleasure to point out that these phenomena have been predicted for decades by those of us who have been working on these issues since the early 1990s. They have come earlier and with more force than is known. predicted then. But their arrival should come as no surprise.
They are the logical and inevitable result of trapping much more heat in the atmosphere by increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases. It is a shame that Johnson and his ilk did not “grow up” and listen to climate scientists decades earlier. We would then have been in a much better position to deal with the climate crisis before our societies were overwhelmed by it.
But we are where we are. The good news is that it is not yet too late to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The bad news is that there are still few signs that beyond the rhetoric about ‘net zero’ and ‘growing up’, politicians in the UK or elsewhere are ready to take the necessary steps to make it happen. .
Climate change: if coal is the worst fossil fuel and more expensive than …
It’s not like we haven’t known for a while what to do. The use of energy is at the heart of all human economic and social activity. It is crucial for economic growth and development. Today, it is also by far the largest source of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, which comes from the combustion of fossil fuels, which still account for some 80% of global energy consumption.
It is blindingly obvious that, if we are to mitigate climate change, countries must reduce their use of fossil fuels. Yet since the first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990, fossil fuel use has increased by more than 60%. It is therefore not surprising that global carbon dioxide emissions have increased by a similar amount.
The reason is that no country has been prepared to restrict the use of fossil fuels to the extent required. And it seems the world is still a long way from recognizing this imperative, in order to maintain the average global temperature rise at 1.5 Â° C, now widely recognized as necessary to avert potentially catastrophic climate change. The United Nations Environment Program estimated last year that plans by companies and countries to extract fossil fuels exceeded the amount required to meet the 120 percent target.
In 2021, the world’s leading energy authority, the International Energy Agency bluntly said that to keep the 1.5 Â° C target within reach, there should be no investment. in new coal mines or new oil and gas fields.
Yet even the UK government, which prides itself on being a ‘world leader’ on climate change, plans to open new oil and gas fields in the North Sea and has not ruled out a new coal mine. in Cumbria. So the UK, along with other countries, needs to ‘grow’ – but apparently not yet.
To be fair to politicians, it’s understandable that they are still unwilling to bite the bullet in reducing fossil fuel consumption, as there is little sign that if they tried to do so with the rigor and urgency required, they would be re-elected. .
Many of the activities that are central to popular conceptions of a “good life” – flying, driving, eating meat, bigger and warmer houses, and second and third houses – and the infrastructure and industries that are necessary to supply them are very large producers of greenhouse gases. People don’t appreciate suggestions that they should make or have less of these things.
In the long term, technologies could be developed, as was the case for renewable electricity, making it possible to reduce emissions from these activities. And the implementation of these technologies is expected to create new jobs and industries, such as the production of electric vehicles instead of internal combustion engines, biofuels for airplanes, heat pumps to replace gas boilers and of plant-based meat substitutes.
But implementing these technologies on a large scale will take time and involve policies that many people, despite their stated concern about climate change, will find intrusive and unacceptable.
Witness the outraged reaction of popular newspapers to the very mention of carbon or meat taxes, which are absolutely essential in a market economy to spur the development and adoption of low-emission or zero-emission alternatives to products and current high-emission services. .
Some of these reactions are motivated by the genuine fear that emission reduction policies have a disproportionate effect on low-income households. There are ways to mitigate these effects by offsetting the additional costs, but these would force richer households to bear a greater share of the costs.
The fact that the UK can cut aid to poorer countries during the pandemic does not build confidence that rich countries will be willing to spread the costs of climate change mitigation according to their ability to pay.
Growing up often involves realizing that we cannot have everything we want. Poor countries and the poor of rich countries want what the rich of rich and poor countries have. The rich want more.
It is not at all clear that such aspirations, which still largely drive economies everywhere, are compatible with the stable climate that we are now on the verge of losing forever.
Paul Ekins is Professor of Resource and Environmental Policy at University College London