Accounting for climate change

Climate change, unsurprisingly, continues to generate headlines. However, it rarely makes the front pages anymore; like any issue, there comes a time when the peak has been reached and there simply isn’t the public interest to warrant banner headlines. For activists, this is something of a problem, since they want to keep this topic firmly in the public eye to maintain pressure on politicians to take action.

So, with the UK having had an unusually warm May bank holiday Monday, we might have expected stories about how this would increasingly become the norm. But no; most reporting was factual and referred back to the previous records set back in the ‘70s. Instead, we seem to read more and more about air pollution although, as this is generally related to road transport, the two topics are closely linked. It’s difficult not to think that the baton simply gets passed from time to time between climate change, air pollution and ocean ‘acidification’ to avoid issue fatigue.

What the climate change lobby wants to make less of, of course, are negative stories such as UN puts brave face as climate talks get stuck. This and similar pieces report suspension of UN talks in Bonn on how to implement the much-lauded Paris climate change agreement. Talks will start again in Bangkok in September, doubtless with much frantic work having been done behind the scenes prior to that.

This is all in preparation for the December climate summit (the Conference of the Parties), to be held this year in Katowice in Poland. At first sight, this is a rather unexpected choice of venue for a meeting where it is intended to adopt the rulebook that turns the aspirations of Paris into a working reality. Poland relies heavily on coal to generate electricity, and is not exactly the most enthusiastic EU member state when it comes to emissions reduction, but this will no doubt be an opportunity for the usual travelling circus of demonstrators to try to shame the Polish government into a change of heart (don’t hold your breath).

Poland’s attitude is in marked contrast to the UK, where the government has declared its willingness to host the 2020 COP, expected to be the first such summit after the Paris agreement comes into operation. Maybe this is a case of anything to take people’s minds off Brexit.

There are reports of dissension in Bonn. To quote “China and some other countries, perhaps frustrated by the slow pace, have sought in this Bonn meeting to go back to the position that existed before the 2015 deal, where only developed countries had to undertake to reduce their emissions.” In fact, this is more likely to be a case of China – the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, let’s not forget – playing the system to benefit its own economy, although it’s unlikely to get away with it at this stage of its development.

But some of the real difficulties in reaching agreement will come from the sheer complexity of the task. The overall goal is easily stated – to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by an agreed amount by a certain date – but achieving that is far from simple. Take out of the equation the lack of available, economic technologies to deliver a secure and reliable electricity supply, forget the even greater difficulties associated with transport and heating, even ignore the inevitable political complications, and we are still left with some very basic problems of definition, accounting and attribution.

For example, we read that Tourism’s carbon impact three times larger than estimated. According to a study published in Nature Climate Change, tourism accounts for 8% of global emissions, once food, hotels and shopping are taken fully into account, along with the travel itself. The authors then assign these total calculated emissions to the tourists’ home countries. Not surprisingly, the US comes top, but this followed by China, Germany and India.

So, of the top four contributors to the calculated impact of tourism, two are actually emerging economies, albeit the world’s two most populous countries. The Chinese and Indian middle classes are enjoying their new-found prosperity and will continue to contribute to the projected 4% annual growth of the sector. It would be a brave government that tried to reduce such travel.

The other side of the coin is the destination countries. For developed countries such as France, the UK, the US and Australia, tourism is an important sector, but for states such as the Maldives, Thailand or Kenya it is a mainstay of their economies. Globally, tourism employs 10% of the world’s workers. Inhibit the sector and the economic consequences would be dire indeed.

This is only one example of the difficulties, albeit a very important one. Every potential course of action has consequences, and some of those can be very hard for individual sectors or countries. The radical cutting of emissions deemed necessary by the IPCC will become increasingly hard to achieve without real disruption of societies. This is why some committed to the cause have spoken of the inadequacy of democracy to bring about such change.

We may slowly be coming to a crunch point where political realities make the kind of actions demanded practically impossible. Even in authoritarian societies such as China, the rulers are aware that they need to keep the population happy if their authority is not to be questioned. What may happen – possibly in the UK – in 2020 is anyone’s guess. Another fudge is likely, but the limits to action may have by then become more obvious.

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