A little climate optimism
I recently had my second child, and inevitably it got me thinking about the impacts of climate change, and what sort of world they will grow up in (because I’m a climate nerd and I can’t help it!). When we talk about a 2C-3°C rise in temperature by 2050, or the need to be emissions neutral by then, or the cost of climate damages, we’re talking about the world of their 30s, which personally helps make things a bit more tangible.
Now that the 'what will the world be like for my children' cliché is out of the way I thought I’d outline why I’m relatively positive about the outlook to 2050, and developments on both the mitigation and adaptation sides of the climate equation. Don’t get me wrong, there will be major climate impacts to deal with by mid-Century - our emissions to date guarantee tha - and there are some processes which look irreversible - with the loss of Arctic sea-ice prime among them. But, looking at developments over the past 5 years, and despite the challenges, I’m far more optimistic now than then about our ability to shift the world economy onto a far more sustainable footing (and yes, that’s even with the election of you know who to the White House).
There are two main strands to this; the first is the major shift that has occured in the development of renewables; and the second is that we’ve moved towards adaptation in practice, rather than debate about terminology and frameworks. Taking renewables first, the momentum is now rapid in favour of transition to low carbon energy. 2016 was a terrible year politically, but bursting with good news on Energy. There’s China’s commitment to climate leadership, despite uncertainty in the U.S – backed up by a planned £291bn investment in renewables over the next 5 years, and reducing its coal capacity (including cancelling previously planned plants). There’s the fact that wind turbine technician is now the fastest-growing job in the U.S, or that the solar industry now employs more people than oil and gas in both the U.S and China, or the case for solar and wind as an abundant energy source in Africa. But more than anything it’s that we appear to have reached a tipping point where renewable energy makes sense from a purely economic perspective, and as a result the investment and growth is following. Indeed solar power was the cheapest form of energy in 2016! Importantly, because it’s driven by money, the policies and posturing emanating from the White House has much less impact than it would have 10 years ago. For me the direction of travel is clear, and as renewables become ever more attractive the potential for a rapid energy transition grows.
The clean energy transition. Photo: Mark Seton
The second is that our ability to implement adaptation in practice is getting stronger and stronger. In particular, the mainstreaming of climate resilience within large financial institutions like the multi-lateral development banks (MDBs), and a growing awareness within the private sector and among investors of the need to ‘shift their attention from the regulatory to the physical risks posed by climate change’, provides big opportunities to harness finance for resilience. My view of these developments is that they show that the mainstreaming of climate resilience is gathering pace, and will increasingly become an integral part of activities across all sectors of the economy.
All of this leaves me cautiously optimistic about the future, but a word of caution is needed here. Critical in all of this is that our efforts at building clean energy systems, and increasing resilience, contribute to improving the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable. There is a clear question of equity and justice in our response to climate change. This means ensuring that international climate finance reaches the local level, but also figuring out models of resilience in the private sector which benefit the poorest groups as well. If we can harness this finance, and ensure that the benefits of resilience are felt where they're most needed, then outlook is brighter than it may seem!
If you’re working on adaptation and want to build your professional capacity join us in Oxford for the Adaptation Academy, 13th-25th August.