Vicky Allan: Drop the defeatism. From Lula to renewables, there's reason for hope on climate

Aerial View of Amazon Rainforest, South America.
Aerial View of Amazon Rainforest, South America.

It seems absurd to say it in a year in which Pakistan was swamped by deadly floods, wildfires rushed across Europe and the UK sweltered in record temperatures, but, here and there, I do see reasons for hope. Almost a year on from Glasgow’s hosting of Cop26 there are signs of something shifting. They exist. There are enough of them there for us to ask, if such hope can drive us almost as much as the climate fear, and should therefore be given a bit more airtime?

Yesterday’s victory, by a whisker, for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and his promise to end Amazon deforestation, is an example worth celebrating. With it we see the ousting of a far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who oversaw a catastrophic 50 per cent rise in deforestation, an estimated two billion trees cut down or burned. By contrast, in Lula’s previous period of office, between 2004 and 2012, deforestation fell by more than 80%. We can find tentative hope here that ‘the lungs of the planet’, already close according to recent research to a crucial tipping point, can be allowed to breathe again.

In China, too, alongside its terrifying expansion of coal fired plants, there are positives – in the form of its renewables development spree, installing more green energy each year than Europe and the United States combined. China may lead the world in coal use, but it also, according to international energy analyst Tim Buckley, leads “in every zero-emissions technology today”, from wind and solar to ground heat pumps and green hydrogen”.

READ MORE: Don't buy the doom – we can still alter this climate path

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine certainly appears to have turbo-boosted renewables globally. Recently, the International Energy Agency predicted for the first time that fossil fuel demand is likely to peak near the end of this decade. “The global energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” stated IEA executive director Fatih Birol, “has prompted a scramble by many countries to use other energy sources to replace the natural gas supplies that Russia has withheld from the market. The encouraging news is that solar and wind are filling much of the gap, with the uptick in coal appearing to be relatively small and temporary.”

The IEA, of course, may be wrong – and certainly in the UK, we can also see turbo-boosters have been strapped behind oil and gas development as well as renewables. The fight to define future energy is fraught and pivotal.

Even David Wallace-Wells, author of the chilling The Uninhabitable Earth, recently wrote a New York Times article of caveated optimism, in which he noted that “thanks to astonishing declines in the price of renewables, a truly global political mobilisation, a clearer picture of the energy future and serious policy focus from world leaders, we have cut expected warming almost in half in just five years.” His hopeful point is that we are now at a point in history where the climate-crisis is already upon us – we have failed to avert it – but that “the most terrifying predictions” (4 degrees rise and upwards) have been “made improbable by decarbonisation”.

However, he also notes, that the “more we are learning about even relatively moderate levels of warming, the harsher and harder to navigate they seem.”

Of course, it would be foolish and Pollyannaish to focus on these small positive steps and not acknowledge the scale of our failures. For, as we approach Cop27, there are the usual warnings of how badly, globally, we are doing. There is “no credible” pathway in place to keep global temperature rises within 1.5C degrees, said a UN Emissions report titled The Closing Window. “The world is headed for 2.8 degrees of global heating by the turn of the century”.

The scare factor sadly does not seem to have got through to Rishi Sunak, who, at time of writing, is not planning to attend Cop27 – but rather will be staying home, attending to his own, admittedly, “huge inbox”.

The UN’s recent warnings could turn us in one of two different directions – towards doomism, or galvanised effort. Any discussion about climate always seems balanced on a knife-edge between the paralysis of doomism and the inertia of complacency. What’s key in these times is that we don’t swap climate denialism for climate defeatism, and abandon hope, or retreat further into escapism, or even the dazzling pressures of the here and now.

The window is rapidly closing, but it is not yet closed. A chink of light shines through. It’s there in the expansion of renewables. It’s in the expanding climate justice movement. It’s in the possibility, too, of a tipping point in terms of human attitude and action – one that somehow causes people to scale back, consume less, fly less, drive less, walk more, share more, conserve more, and put greater pressure on our leaders.

Doing what is necessary requires holding on to the fact that we have indeed already failed, but acknowledging that we can fail less, try again and try harder, and throughout it all remember that, whilst it is not within our grasp to entirely eliminate climate-related suffering, we can at least prevent some of its impact.