New Year – it’s resolution time
Posted on 17th January 2022 at 18:44
Here we go again, another year beginning with the government and media battling to keep the public on side and the virus at bay. What with legally mandated mask-wearing and work-from-home-if-possible advice it’s tempting to feel like nothing has changed as we move from 2021 into 2022. But despite the superficial similarities between our lives at the beginning of last year and now at the birth of this one, we are in fact in a very different situation when it comes to climate change and our solutions to address it. COP26 has sparked a new focus – with a new public appreciation of climate risk and what it means. Let’s unpack where we stand now by reviewing the major events over the 4 seasons of 2021, and identify the key climate goals for the year ahead.
2021 began with assessing the damage wrought by the extreme weather of the year before. The infamous California wildfires more than doubled in size in 2020, officially the hottest year ever recorded by NASA. Africa experienced its warmest ever January whilst 50,000 people fled rain and floods in Malaysia. Yet there were hints of progress regarding geopolitical efforts to halt climate change, not least from Joe Biden who announced that the US would finally rejoin the Paris Agreement.
In the UK, the year began as it meant to go on – with patches of civil unrest from pressure groups urging the government to act faster in dealing with climate risk. Coal power was the first to come under fire, with globally respected scientist James Hansen describing plans for a new coalmine in Cumbria as showing “contemptuous disregard for the future of young people”. Meanwhile activists revealed they had dug a tunnel under Euston station to protest construction of the government’s new high speed rail project.
In April scientists worryingly concluded that the crucial warm Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (Amoc) current was at its lowest strength in over 1,600 years. Perhaps it was warnings such as these that prompted new pledges from worldwide governments. A two-day climate summit in the US concluded with promises from all involved, not least a commitment by the host nation to cut greenhouse emissions by over 50% by 2030.
A time of landmark global agreements. First, the Dutch courts ordered Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its total emissions by 45% by 2030 in a ruling that has unprecedented implications for polluting industries. This trend seems set to continue with the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero report stating that development of new oil and gas fields had to halt in 2020 and no new coal power stations could be built if net zero emissions are to be achieved by 2050.
And it was hot - as if to highlight that report, unprecedentedly high temperatures hit North America in June last year, reaching all the way up to Canada which saw highs of up to 49.6C, beating all previous records. Meanwhile New Zealand and Africa saw their warmest Junes ever experienced whilst Europe and Asia saw their second warmest.
Internationally, the need for a global response to the climate crisis had never been clearer. The IPCC concluded that the situation was “unequivocally caused by human activities”, with some impacts of this activity now “irreversible”. The report galvanised further civil unrest in the UK with Extinction Rebellion blocking roads in London to bring the national conversation squarely onto climate concerns.
As Autumn set in momentum was building to COP26. And Greta Thunberg hit the headlines with “blah blah blah” - her opinion given that emissions were still predicted to rise by 16% by 2030. Meanwhile a new protest group made headlines in the UK, with Insulate Britain demonstrators blocking major motorways to demand better insulation for the nation’s housing as a quick fix for sorting emissions pledges.
In the final run up to COP26 two nations famous for avoiding sustainable commitments made positive announcements. China ended its Kunming conference by revealing a £170m fund to protect biodiversity in developing countries whilst Australia published its long-term plan for reducing carbon emissions. Such progress was mirrored in the Arabian region, with multiple solutions enacted at the Middle Eastern Green Initiative Summit organised by Saudi Arabia. And with that it was finally here, COP26 was off and running. The inaugural week seemed to be a success with a plethora of new deals coming into play including pledges on coal, methane, deforestation, and an ambition to keep global warming under 1.5C. Green finance also took centre-stage, with over a hundred of the worlds pension funds and banks agreeing to put their $130tn collective wealth towards reducing global emissions.
Yet the second week saw harder negotiation with COP26 president, Alok Sharma, ensuring attending nations agreed to improve their emissions reduction plans by the time of COP27, and again each year ongoing. Sadly, this deal did not include the key facility pundits were demanding and expecting, which would have helped developing nations pay for the already manifest impact of the climate crisis.
As the year drew finally to a close, again the planet yielded stark warnings to us to keep to the commitments of COP26. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) published a new Arctic temperature record with summer 2020 having seen temperatures as high as 38C while Australia continued to be hit by floods with up to 180mm of rain falling within 24 hours at one point. The words of the late biologist EO Wilson, who died on the 26th December, have never seemed more prophetic:
“If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” – EO Wilson
New Year resolutions?
So, where do we stand at the end of 2021 and with the promise of a new year less constrained by the fight against COVID and stark goals ahead of us before COP27? Of course, COP26 didn’t achieve the optimum outcome for the climate community – but it was never going to. What commitments and schemes were in fact achieved have set out a clear action plan for the year ahead. And with the publicity surrounding COP26 and the civil unrest associated with climate in the UK last year, the public are uniquely primed in their interest and support for meaningful, widespread change in climate action. New Year resolutions are infamous for failing before January is out – mostly for being unrealistic in the first place (gym membership anyone?) So let’s keep the world invested in the fight against carbon emissions and in so doing stand the best chance of our New Year climate resolutions succeeding and achieving everything we have committed to, for this year and beyond.
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