In 2020 the amounts of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide rose by more than the annual average in the past 10 years. Greenhouse gas emissions are not falling. Dr Heather Graven, Reader in Climate Physics, at Imperial College London, points out that “These atmospheric measurements provide hard evidence that, rather than slowing climate change, we are accelerating it. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are increasing faster than ever.”
The Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Office, Prof Petteri Taalas, has described our current efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as “way off track”. Based on current evidence, he concludes, “At the current rate of increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, we will see a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5 to 2C above pre-industrial levels”.
For far too long, we have focussed on the debate about how much we might reduce emissions by 2050. US President Joe Biden argued that this is the “decisive decade” for tackling climate change, saying: “Scientists tell us that this is the decisive decade – this is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis… We must try to keep the Earth’s temperature to an increase of 1.5°C. The world beyond 1.5 degrees means more frequent and intense fires, floods, droughts, heatwaves and hurricanes – tearing through communities, ripping away lives and livelihoods.”
Politicians continue to make promises for future leaders with commitments for Net-Zero by 2050. Setting aside concerns that net-zero is a dangerous trap. It is dangerous because it perpetuates a belief in technological salvation in the future, which undermines the need to cut emissions now. Just today, Australia has pledged to reach net-zero by 2050, and it has refused to set any ambitious targets for 2030. One of the world’s biggest and most criticised polluters has effectively refused to take action. This decision has been made by a generation of leaders who have seen one of the worst bush fire seasons in its recorded history from September 2019 until March 2020, following its record hottest year.
The cause and effect are clear. One might reasonably conclude that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon their children. Not just on their children but on those of other Australians and of people around the world. The UN is an assemblage of sovereign nation-states, each with interests. The NDCs, Nationally Determined Contributions, are just that; they are declarations of intent. There is a large potential chasm between promise and delivery.
Scientists have long warned of the dangers of feedback loops exacerbating the problem. Around 60% of the methane that ends up in the atmosphere comes from human sources such as agriculture, fossil fuels, landfills and biomass burning; the other 40% comes from the activities of microbes in natural sources such as wetlands. With a warming climate, they produce more. Earlier this year, researchers in the Amazon reported that parts of the rainforest were now emitting more CO2 than they were absorbing.
Prof Euan Nisbet from Royal Holloway, University of London, explains the scale of the challenge: “Greenhouse gas measurements are like skidding into a car crash. The disaster gets closer and closer but you can’t stop it. You can clearly see the crash ahead, and all you can do is howl”