The good, the bad and the ugly of climate change in 2018


Although ‘economics’ is derided as the ‘dismal science’, I would suggest that an even more dismal one is ‘climate science’. The unfolding series of measurements quantifying how planet Earth is overall warming, and its manifestations, paints a gloomy future for not only our grandkids but our kids – and even us.

Increasing understanding of how humanity is driving this change, mainly through deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, also presents solutions for turning this process around, i.e. revegetate and convert to renewable energy. However, an additional pall of gloom is imposed by the failure of humanity to, so far, meaningfully implement the obvious solutions to an otherwise inevitable catastrophe.

At this time of year, it is usual to sit back and review where we are, in the light of events unfolding over the previous 12 months.

Yes, the bad news keeps on coming but signs of meaningful action to turn around our present climate trajectory are appearing.

The bad

Global emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase, driven mainly by rapidly industrialising nations with huge populations like China and India.

In Australia, after a period of declining emissions during the period of the Labor-Greens federal government, emissions began climbing again after the Coalition took power in 2013, with a sharp increase in 2018. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), the predominant greenhouse gas, passed 400ppm (parts per million) two years ago, realising that life as we know it evolved in the range 200-300ppm.

However, the contribution of other greenhouse gases derived from human activity – primarily methane but also nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons and other man-made chemicals – bring the CO2-equivalent to >500ppm. Methane has a global warming potential of 56 times that of CO2 (on a 20-year time scale) and is difficult to quantify, especially from fugitive emissions. Thus, 500ppm might be an underestimate.

This keeps raising the question, at least to students of evolution, of how life in general will adapt to this massive environmental change that has occurred over a period of a mere 150 years (following hundreds of thousands of years of evolution). It's not so much the direct effect of the greenhouse gases themselves on life processes but their effects in changing the atmospheric and ocean conditions.

Deliberations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) over the past decade or so have set a global warming mean temperature of 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures as the upper limit. This is to avoid catastrophic climate change and for the planet to remain reasonably habitable for humans.

However, in a special report published this October, the IPCC revised this critical limit to 1.5°C. We are already at 1°C above pre-industrial global temperature levels, with the many adverse consequences clearly apparent, as mentioned below.

This downward revision was based on detailed modelling of projected consequences of rises in greenhouse gas concentrations and hence global temperature. However, IPCC reports provide inevitably conservative, lowest common denominator estimates due to the large number of contributors involved. Further, fossil fuel organisations intensively lobby outcomes of such reports, indirectly through national government representation, as well as directly to water down conclusions.

The State of the Climate 2018 Report, prepared by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), clearly documents the trends of climate change parameters in Australia, attributable to our present 1°C rise in temperatures above pre-industrial levels. Most trends are upward and show no signs of abating, but rather are accelerating.

This applies to mean land and sea temperatures; intensity and duration of heat waves; forest fire danger index; declining rainfall in southern Australia but increases in northern Australia; increased intensity of downpours; declining snowfalls in alpine regions; sea level rise; increased bleaching of coral reefs attributable to higher ocean temperatures and increased ocean acidity (due to CO2 absorption).

Globally, there are increasing media reports, backed by scientific documentation, of disappearing Arctic ice sheets; melting glaciers; increased frequency and intensity of bushfires (like in California, Scandinavia and Queensland); storm severity (e.g. eastern US, Queensland); changed weather patterns (e.g. South Asia monsoon); increasing drought incidence and severity (eastern Australia, middle east, parts of Africa) and more.

The really bad

However, further bad news: there is a lag phase between extra greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, global warming and consequent climate effects. We are now only observing the consequences of greenhouse gas increases of up to about a decade ago. We are yet to see the consequences of what we have added over the last decade.

In November, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its Emissions Gap Report 2018. This report measures the extent to which countries are progressing towards their nationally determined commitments (NDCs) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. These commitments were made with the Paris Accords of 2015 and were in any case too low overall for the world to stay below 2°C, let alone 1.5°C.

Most major economies are already, after three years, falling short of their 2015 NDC commitments. The UNEP report calculated that for the planet to remain below 2°C the NDCs of major economies would need to be TRIPLED. If we are not to breach 1.5°C then they must be increased around FIVEFOLD. With these upgrades in ambition starting from about … NOW. Are humans capable of this? Will I live long enough to find out?

Australia, forever chasing Olympic glory, is near the top of the list of laggards in combining modest NDCs with lack of progress towards them. Australia’s NDC commitment was a 26-28 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. Emissions have increased over the previous year with projections to 2030 well above consistency with a 2°C scenario. Not so surprising when it is considered that federal government climate energy policy over the last five years has centred around protecting fossil fuel industries and pooh-poohing climate change.

Particularly bad news this year is the deepening intransigence of conservative politicians around the world (e.g. USA, Australia, Brazil) to even acknowledging – let alone taking any action on – climate change.

In Australia this led to yet another change of PM with the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull – even though he was trying his best to pander to the hard right of the Coalition – and a return to the Abbott era ‘climate change is crap’ agenda.

The present federal government simply ignores the findings of reports like the CSIRO and BoM's State of the Climate 2018 Report, raising the question of why they even allow these organisations to keep functioning considering that they produce data totally in conflict with the Coalition narrative.

For example, the government falsely claims that emissions are on the decline and that we would meet our emissions reduction commitments by 2030 “in a canter”. And they are going gung-ho on coal mining, gas fracking, and drilling for oil and gas in the Great Australian Bight, all of which would considerably enhance Australia’s already disproportionate contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Oh, and so many more examples of government policy with regard to climate and energy in complete contradiction to the readily available data.

I have previously tried to explain the seemingly irrational behaviour of conservative politicians to climate change either as being beholden to the fossil fuel industries, a non-negotiable article of conservative faith that climates don’t change or ignorance of the science and the scientific method in general. Or perhaps a combination of all three? Continuing to be ruled by such people – here and in other major greenhouse gas emitting countries – will guarantee a climate catastrophe, even within the projected duration of my lifetime.

The good

But, at this time of Christmas and New Year, there must be some signs of hope for the future?

At the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 24) held in Poland in December, which is trying to advance implementation of the 2016 Paris Accords, there were some signs of cooperation among the nearly 200 participating nations.

They essentially agreed on a standardised means of measuring emissions and accounting for their reductions. A seemingly small step when considering the magnitude of the emissions reduction task ahead, but a necessary one if there is to be any seriousness about emissions reductions on a global scale.

But COP 24 was not at all an international love-in. Some fossil-fuel loving countries – US, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Kuwait – did not accept the October IPCC report putting the upper temperature rise limit at 1.5°C, insisting on a changed wording as an output of the meeting. Fossil fuel companies were allowed to set up their stalls and ‘ancillary events’ at the meeting, and no doubt indulged in behind the scenes lobbying to water down outcomes.

Australia’s prominence at COP24 was only at one such event, organised by the US, but was not to be seen in any discussions about actually addressing climate change. However, an international will to meaningfully act on climate change was apparent, even though the rate of progress was painfully slow.

Economics is now emerging from its ‘dismal’ tag to render climate science also less dismal. The still-falling cost of solar and wind power, and now batteries, is making the most hard-headed business types think again about converting to renewable energy.

Forgetting about the cost of environmental damage caused by the burning of fossil fuels, renewable energy with battery stabilisation is now cheaper than fossil fuel derived energy in Australia, and will inevitably become more so into the future. The success of the Tesla ‘big battery’ in stabilising the grid in eastern Australia over the last year illustrates that electricity derived from only renewables can still be reliable even ‘when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow’ (a favourite Coalition phrase).

Such ‘big batteries’ can stabilise the grid in a fraction of a blink of an eye whereas gas turbines take time to ramp up, or have to be left running even when not required for backup. Big battery costs are likely to fall rapidly with innovation and mass production. The initial assessment of our present PMwas that the Tesla big battery would be about as useful as the “Big Banana” at Coff’s Harbour, NSW. It is now readily apparent, except to the Coalition and their backers, that an energy revolution is underway that will consign energy generation from fossil fuels to history. Whether this revolution will proceed fast enough to reduce global emissions by amounts required to stay within 1.5°C is still a question.

There have also been rapid developments in distributed energy, reducing reliance on grids, with two million