Update (21 Sept): After a horror Atlantic hurricane season in the Caribbean, the incoming President of COP23, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, addresses the United Nations.
This summer in the northern hemisphere has been unseasonably hot again. The Lancet Planet Health journal has published a paper on the findings of a study commissioned by the European Union that warns of significant future hazards to human health in Europe from weather-related events – heatwaves, fires and storms. Al Gore has released a sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth” appropriately titled “An Inconvenient Sequel”. Extreme weather events seem to be more frequent and more severe – telltale symptoms of climate change. The head of the UNFCCC, Christina Figueres and some of her colleagues have published a plan to deal with carbon dioxide by 2020. These are just some of the signs that the world is both experiencing climate change and taking it more seriously.
However, this week, the Trump administration officially gave notice of US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. This was expected during the Presidential Campaign last year and heavily foreshadowed in the first six months of the current administration. By the rules of the agreement, the actual withdrawal cannot take place until late 2020 (the day after the next Presidential election, to be precise). If anything, then this decision to withdraw has only served to deepen the commitment by other nations to address the climate crisis. It was feared by some that US withdrawal would act in the opposite way – as an excuse to de-commit. Even within the US, some states (California in particular) have intensified their own domestic and international efforts to meet the challenges of climate change. Individual cities and towns have done likewise.
Companies are doing their bit too. Tesla has launched their Model 3 electric vehicle to much fanfare, completing Elon Musk’s 10-year master plan. Tesla also has entered the battery business and the solar energy business. Here in Australia, Tesla (partnering with a French renewable energy firm) won a state government tender to install these batteries into the electricity grid as a storage device for wind and solar generation facilities. A few kilometres away from our home, Tesla has partnered with a building construction firm to provide photoelectric-equipped roof tile, a domestic consumer battery-pack and electric vehicles into their new homes. Musk himself has fitted these roof tiles and battery packs to his own home in California. Demand for these products – especially the combination of the three – now outstrips supply. Musk has warned his vehicle manufacturing workers to prepare for “production hell” as they ramp up to fulfil almost half-a-million backorders for his new Model 3 car.
The Tesla story runs deeper than these spectacularly publicised recent events. After a pollution scandal coming out of Germany with diesel cars cheating on their emissions tests, barely a day goes by without hearing of one or more established car makers going electric. In the petrol-headed realm of motorsport, the classic Le Mans 24 Hour event has changed: Porsche has quit the LMP1 class (but remained in others) and Audi has entirely quit Le Mans for Formula E. It seems going green on the road is all the rage and major corporations are responding to the demand. Also in Europe, several countries have announced that in 20 year’s time, internal combustion engine vehicles will be banned from sale. Some cities have banned the use of some kinds of cars and trucks – most notably diesels – because of pollution concerns. Tesla has been the poster child of green motoring in general and of premium electric vehicles specifically. They have been a major disruptor of a huge industry.
Meanwhile, solar and wind electricity generation continues apace all over the world. Prices of the renewables infrastructure have fallen. Many power bills from the traditional grid have risen. The renwables technology has improved and worldwide adoption is increasing. Solar panels and windmills are everywhere to be seen. Other renewable sources are also being deployed. Coal-fired power stations are being retired and new ones are being cancelled and deferred. Although a very old technology, pumped hydro storage is undergoing a renaissance. Governments around the world, including here in Australia, are committing billions to storage of all kinds – batteries, pumped hydro and others – to mitigate demand spikes in the traditional grid and to smooth intermittency in renewables. Alternative energy is a boom sector all over the world and a significant source of new investment and new employment.
These are some of the good news stories. But there is plenty of bad news. Some researchers say there’s less that 5% chance of keeping global warming under 2 degrees celcius. The North Atlantic current appears to be changing. The reported numbers underpinning the Paris agreement could very well be dodgy – in the wrong direction. There’s more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than ever before – exceeding 400 parts-per-million recently. There seems to be a lot more heat stores in the oceans and lakes than we thought. There’s certainly lots of warming in the polar regions. Ice melt, both in the mountains and near the poles, seems to be happening faster than we thought. Some of the more extreme – and therefore controversial – forecasts of Al Gore’s first movie have come true in the last decade. The most criticised one of “An Inconvenient Truth” at the time it was released – the flooding of the 9/11 Memorial Site in New York City – came true during superstorm Sandy. There are many, many other dire predictions from many other sources that have similarly come true, unfortunately. But there is a sunny side to these tragic events: more people now believe that climate change is real and requires urgent and important action.
For so many others who have been environmentalists for years and have made changes in the last decade to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint, this is a source of relief. But the Paris agreement is insufficient and our changes to date have not been enough. There is momentum to resolve this issue in global society but it has come very late. Solutions exist but they are not being adopted at the scale and speed needed. Things will get worse before they get better. It’s now a race to see how bad, how fast and for how long. Perhaps they need to get quite a lot worse quite quickly before mankind shifts into top gear on this one. But there’s no turning back. That’s probably the best good news story of all.