Climate Reality and the Politically Impossible

This close to meeting the 1.5C climate target

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Hello Friends,

In my 20+ years covering climate change I’ve witnessed the terms “politically realistic” and “political will” bouncing off each other a zillion times. Translation: ‘'We must be politically realistic and can’t do much to reduce carbon emissions’; ‘All we need is political will to slash emissions and save the climate’. Today I look at how those two terms are finally coming together, offering real hope. First, let’s take a brief trip back to the 2009 climate circus known as Copenhagen COP 15.

Political reality vs physical reality — who wins?

Germany’s leading climate scientist looked defeated. He stood motionless with a far-off gaze as thousands of delegates from 190 countries at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference bustled around him with world-altering purpose. 

We’d never met but I knew this was Hans Joachim (John) Schellnhuber, who was also the science advisor to the German government. We were in the first week of the 2009 United Nations climate treaty negotiations known as COP 15 in Copenhagen. The city was labelled “Hopenhagen” by marketing gurus with unbridled optimism that the two-week long conference would save the world from climate change. 

During those two cold, wet, and occasionally snowy weeks in mid-December the city was transformed into a climate activist’s wet dream. More than 45,000 people from all over the planet flooded into the city to talk about climate change. Every bit of ad space in the city from buses to walls of building were plastered with climate messages. Bright video screens, in and out of doors, featured climate change commercials. Climate-themed outdoor art and information displays on every corner, along with nightly outdoor concerts. Every hotel or public building with space to hold more than 10 people was booked for some sort of climate event, piles of books and reports were launched, all manner of businesses held meetings, hosted invitation-only cocktail parties and dinners. 

There were at least three parallel climate conferences: the Children's Climate Forum; Klimaforum09 — the People's Climate Summit; and a very alternative/appropriate one inside a big circus tent in the squatter district of Christiana. These parallel conferences held hundreds of seminars, workshops, information sessions in addition to the many official COP 15 side events, presentations, and press conferences. It was a thunderous climate-information waterfall 24 hours a day for two weeks and I very nearly drowned. 

Reality bites “Hopenhagen”

But with 10 days still to go, there was John Schellnhuber, the climate scientist who had the ear of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, looking like he’d lost hope in “Hopenhagen”.

I introduced myself, and asked how he thought negotiations were going. He said he’d just been in a briefing with US President Barack Obama’s senior staff. There’d been an intense discussion about how much and how fast carbon emissions needed to be cut to keep global warming well below 2 degrees C. He told them there was only so much carbon budget left before 2 degrees C was unavoidable. The Obama officials told him to be politically realistic.   

"Political reality must be grounded in physical reality or it's completely useless," he told me with exasperation. 

The Copenhagen climate talks ended in a backroom deal driven by the U.S that enraged many countries and was little more than a political declaration to do something about climate change.

Physical reality makes a personal visit

The day after the conference ended, I had a personal visit from physical reality. It was a bright sun-filled day and I was back in the colourful squatter district of Christiana in a cafe/daycare centre finishing up my third double expresso coffee when physical reality made itself known. I fell asleep at the table. Groggily, I made my way back to my rented room and slept for 18 hours. 

There was a big recession in 2008-2009, and governments found billions if not trillions of dollars to bail out banks and other financial institutions. They also promised to invest in a green economic recovery to help fight climate change. While emission declined slightly for the first time ever in 2009, the economic recovery did little to curb carbon emissions in 2010 (with a record six percent increase) nor in the years that followed.

And physical reality made itself known over the last decade in the form of rising temperatures and extreme weather events that has cost the world hundreds of billions of dollars a year. In the US the annual costs in recent years has averaged US $157 billion. With record wildfires in the western US the costs will be even higher in 2020.

Here’s our first Need-to-Know: Talking about greening an economy doesn’t make an economy green.

How green are economic recovery investments this time?

So here we are in 2020 with another big recession triggering a decline in emissions and with many governments promising green economic recoveries. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent but exactly how green are those dollars? Not very according to an analysis by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent scientific body that tracks government climate action.

The economic recovery packages can be complex, often involving putting new money into a bewildering-range of existing programs. CAT looked at 106 domestic measures in five big emitting countries: China, the European Union, India, South Korea and the USA. Only Korea and EU put money into addressing their carbon emissions. And those amounted to at best a third of expenditures. And that’s the good news. Here’s the bad:

“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing more of is governments using the pandemic recovery to roll back climate legislation and bail out the fossil fuel industry, especially in the US, but also in Brazil, Mexico, Australia, South Africa, Indonesia, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and other countries” said Niklas Höhne of NewClimate Institute, one of the CAT’s two partner organizations.

Aside from investments in health care and income support for citizens, most economic recovery investments are in business-as-usual industries that will make climate change worse. That’s one Need-to-Know

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Another Need-to-Know is that an investment of an additional 1.2 percent of global GDP a year is enough to make the transition to a net zero carbon global economy and keep climate change below 2 degrees C said Niklas Höhne at a press briefing last Wednesday. Given the amount money governments are throwing about this year, a 1.2 percent investment to protect the climate for us, our children, grandchildren and future generations ought to be doable. 

We might save the climate after all

“I’m much more hopeful today than I’ve been a very long time,” I was astonished to hear Niklas say last Wednesday.

The reason for Niklas’ new found optimism is China. Last Tuesday, September 22, China formally declared they were aiming to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. Since China accounts for 25 percent of global emissions that’s a big deal —- enough to lower future global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3 degrees C — according to a Climate Action Tracker estimate. It means China intends to completely phase out all conventional use of coal, oil and gas by the middle of the century. “That was unthinkable a few years ago,” he said. 

China has a good track record of sticking to or bettering their climate commitments added Bill Hare of Climate Analytics (Australia), CAT’s other partner organization. China is far and away the world leader in renewable energy and electric vehicle production and likely plans to sell piles of their green tech to rest of the world. 

Added to this bit of very good news is the fact that the European Union (EU) also announced a more ambitious reduction target for 2030, as well as a commitment to climate neutrality by 2050. A number of other countries including Canada have made the same commitment.

Joe Biden can put world on a path to 1.5C

China and the EU account for 33 percent of global emissions. Now if Joe Biden wins the US election this November, and keeps his commitment to put America on a path to net zero emissions by 2050, then the 1.5 degree C Paris Agreement target is within firm reach said Hare. That’s an important and hopeful Need-to-Know. It’s also something considered politically impossible just a week ago. 


When three of the world’s biggest economies say they’re getting rid of fossil fuels and going green, it will change everything. This is something to be excited about and to share widely while putting aside our doubts and cynicism. There’ll be pushback and foot-dragging enough from those only concerned with their own short term interests. And by those uncomfortable with change. Countries will need to be pushed by citizens so they make good on their emissions reduction commitments. 

Five years after Copenhagen I spoke to John Schellnhuber after he participated in The People’s Climate March in New York City in September 2014. It was the largest climate march ever, involving more than 400,000 people. He told me: “Only a global social movement will force nations to act.”  

John went on to say that once the business sector realizes the transition to a low-carbon world is underway, they will push governments to create policies needed for a low-carbon societies. “It’s the biggest business opportunity in history,” he said. That was exactly six years ago. 

What’s politically realistic?

In the immortal words of Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “Things Are Only Impossible Until They're Not.”

Until next time, stay safe.


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