El Nino-induced drought, Myanmar, 2016. Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The reality of climate change is attested by overwhelming evidence. It is now reported that 2015 was by far the hottest year since accurate records began to be collected more than a century ago. The recent confluence of steady temperature rises and a warming phase of the Southern Oscillation (exemplified in El Niňo) has resulted in the seven months from November 2015 to May 2016 each being the warmest of these individual months ever recorded, some by almost 1⁰C over the previous highest. These are extraordinary figures, given that records in monthly world temperatures are more likely to be measured in small fractions of a degree.
This recent acceleration causes concern over possible tipping-points which would lead to irreversible and uncontrollable temperature rises. In particular, these might be fuelled by the rapid release of huge quantities of carbon from any one of several “carbon sinks”, such as Arctic permafrost with its locked-in carbon or the Boreal forests of the near-Arctic. The process could be triggered by forest wildfires unlocking carbon dioxide, or the melting of the permafrost unlocking large quantities of methane (“marsh gas”), a particularly potent climate gas (see "Climate disruption, the new reality", 19 May 2016).
More and more, the direct risks of climate change to human security are evident in visible and pressing effects, not least an increase in the number of climate refugees. A recent openDemocracy article made the connection:
“While estimates vary, climate change will cause or contribute to the displacement of millions of people. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 21.5 million people have already been displaced by weather-related hazards each year since 2008. That figure does not include those forced to flee because of gradual hazards such as sea level rise” (see Max Harris et al, "What's happening to the millions of people displaced by climate change?", 20 June 2016).
What makes this situation more worrying is the deeply antagonistic atmosphere in much of western Europe, where refugees are seen too often as “threats” to be met by naval patrols at sea and razor-wire, teargas and water-cannon on land. These reactions, though, are in response to the existing relatively low numbers of migrants: low, that is, compared with what will happen if climate change is not controlled and allowed to evolve into wholesale climate disruption. This all means that moving to ultra-low carbon economies is becoming critically important.
In a wider perspective, of the kind many of these columns have tried to offer over recent years, three global issues must be addressed:
* transforming the economy away from the failing and divisive neoliberal model and its deep inequalities
* moving to low-carbon systems
* confronting the manifestly damaging military outlook that has proved so costly since 9/11.
All three are dauntingly large challenges. But a positive factor that arguably needs more focus is the growing evidence that the low-carbon transition really can be achieved, and indeed is already underway. This view, reflected in the work of Jeremy Leggett and others, champions a particular aspect of the phenomenon: the role of the global south and its potential for low-carbon development (see "Climate disruption: the south gets real", 30 April 2015).
A smart south
At the root of this cluster of work is a growing recognition of the need for susbstantial progress in both the global north and south. The major carbon emitters of the north must move radically to reduce their carbon emissions, certainly by 80% by 2030; but it is just as important for the current low-carbon emitters across the south to avoid development policies that add greatly to higher emissions.
The argument is put cogently by Friday Phiri in his article "Building Africa’s Energy Grid Can Be Green, Smart and Affordable" (IPS News, 16 June 2016). In pointing to the severe problems of electricity undersupply across much of sub-Saharan Africa, Phiri focuses on the potential for avoiding the high-carbon pathway to development. He cites the succinct case made by Kofi Annan, who chairs the Africa Progress Panel:
“African nations do not have to lock into developing high-carbon old technologies; we can expand our power generation and achieve universal access to energy by leapfrogging into new technologies that are transforming energy systems across the world. Africa stands to gain from developing low-carbon energy, and the world stands to gain from Africa avoiding the high-carbon pathway followed by today’s rich world and emerging markets.”
Africa is used to rapid take-up of new technologies and leapfrogging of the old: witness the extraordinary growth in the use of mobile-phones, and more recently the adoption of solar-powered lights, especially for off-grid districts.
Furthermore, there is considerable potential for small island states to accelerate development of renewable-energy sources, even to the point of becoming 100% renewable.
A recent study from the Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems at Flensburg University in north Germany showed how Barbados, with a population of a little over 300,000 and blessed with abundant solar and wind potential, could take this route. It would even result in lower energy bills, because new renewable-energy technologies are below “grid parity” (that is, cheaper than oil-based systems). The potential exists across much of the global south. Much of the notable increase in work in the field is being done in universities, such as the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill in Barbados.
Obstacles remain in many places, including inertia, bureaucracy, and entrenched commitments to fossil fuels. But the biggest single problem is probably the lack of funding for research and development of systems that are tailor-made for tropical and sub-tropical environments. It is here that states in the global north can play a really significant role: by identifying this need and factoring it in to their international-development funding programmes.
Many analysts argue that development priorities should be prioritised around deep poverty, gendered approaches, and sustainability. All are fully appropriate, but within that outlook there is still far too little emphasis on the fundamental need for a global low-carbon future as a core element of sustainability. Make that a priority and the results could be spectacular.