OPINION - We’re on the ‘highway to climate hell’, UN chief warns world leaders

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

It’s Monday, the trains are stuffed and your feet are wet, so let’s start with some good news: the worst-case scenario has been averted. It was not so long ago climate scientists were warning that Earth – the only known place in the visible universe you can live/watch Matt Hancock eat marsupial genitalia – was set for warming of four to five degrees celsius by century’s end.

That would have been bad. Like, to borrow the old Barry Cryer gag, don’t-bother-buying-green-bananas bad. The fact that we have likely averted this apocalyptic-adjacent outcome is not happenstance. This was our future, had emissions continued to rise unabated. But thanks to a political awakening, the rapid rollout and falling cost of renewables, we can look forward to something better.

But it will be harder. Much harder. According to the latest UN climate report, aptly titled the ‘Emissions Gap’, we are on track for warming of 2.8 degrees celsius by 2100. This is nearly double the 1.5°C target set following the Paris summit in 2015. So here’s the flip side of that earlier good news: while the worst has been averted, the best-case scenario is now probably out of reach. We’re too late.

What about COP26 in Glasgow? Well, countries were supposed to go away and come back with new and improved nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that would put us on track to limit warming to “well below” 2°C  and preferably 1.5°C . It largely hasn’t happened.

This isn’t because humans are short-sighted and easily distracted, or at least that is only part of the problem. Climate change is a really difficult problem to solve! The scientific advice may be straightforward – don’t emit greenhouse gasses. But we’ve constructed an expensively arranged global economy largely powered by burning fuels that emit carbon and farming animals that belch out methane, a gas 30 times more potent than CO2.

We don’t just need to build a few nuclear power plants and install loft insulation. The scale of the transformation necessitates the overhaul of our electricity grid, industry, buildings, transport, food and financial systems. If it were easy, we’d have done it by now.

The global action to address the hole in the ozone isn’t a great template, as that was a rare real-life example of those ‘one weird trick’ to lose belly fat adverts you sometimes see below online news articles. All we had to do then was agree to stop using the chemicals that caused the hole, and there were substitutes available. This is magnitudes more complex.

So how is COP27, what today’s newsletter is nominally about, going? Well, there are reports in the venue of long queues for dwindling supplies of food and water, which is a little on the nose. Arguments about the whereabouts of the $100bn a year rich countries promised poor ones. And the conspicuous absence of Chinese, Indian and Canadian leaders. In other words, the usual.

If it all feels overwhelming or coldly theoretical, remember that every fraction of a degree of warming matters. Because there is no ceiling of bad. Global temperatures will only stabilise when greenhouse gas emissions reach net zero. And action taken now counts for far more than any in the future. If 1.5°C is out of reach, second best isn’t 2°C. It’s 1.51°C.

Elsewhere in the paper, as the Royal College of Nurses prepares to announce the results of a strike ballot of its 300,000 members, health reporter Daniel Keane speaks to the nurses saying ‘enough is enough’.

In the comment pages, Tanya Gold writes that the Simpson’s Tavern is in London’s DNA — we must save it at any cost. While Melanie McDonagh fears the carnage for the English National Opera is what ‘levelling up’ really means.

And finally, Tube (it’s not a Tube line) geeks and Geoff Marshall stans rejoice... the new Underground map is here detailing direct services to and from central London on the Elizabeth line.

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