Dog days of summer
Yet more climate records fall, but the Tory government is criminally ‘maxing out’ fossil fuels and sabotaging the expansion of offshore wind capacity, writes Eddie Ford
In London it was a real scorcher at the weekend, with Britain recording its hottest day of the year so far on Saturday September 9. Provisional data showed a high of 33.2°C at London’s Kew Gardens, beating the previous high of 32.6°C recorded a few days earlier in Wisley, Surrey.
According to the Met Office, Saturday was also the sixth day in a row that the country has recorded a temperature above 30°C - well above average for the time of year. The week before, the Met Office said that Britain had experienced its eighth warmest summer since 1884, with June the hottest month ever since records began. So far, the record for the hottest day ever still stands at 40.3°C - set last year on July 19 at Coningsby in Lincolnshire, but for how long?
Yes, almost every week this summer we have had a record broken - whether in Britain, or globally. In June, July and August - the northern hemisphere summer - the global average temperature reached 16.77°C, which was 0.66°C above the 1991 to 2020 average. The new high is 0.29°C above the previous record set in 2019 - a big jump. Data from the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service showed that August was about 1.5°C warmer than the average for 1850-1900 (although technically the goal to keep global heating below 1.5°C will be considered broken only when this temperature is sustained over months and years). Antarctic sea ice extent has also been extremely low for the time of year, which is deeply worrying.
Meanwhile, storms, heatwaves, fires and floods - not to mention torrential rain and ferocious winds - have destroyed lives and livelihoods across the globe, from North and South America, to Europe, India, Japan, the Philippines and China. More and more extreme weather. Just in the last few days, we have had whole neighbourhoods being washed away in the port city of Derna in Libya after two dams burst following a hurricane. The death toll is expected to rise above 10,000.
Now we have yet another gloomy United Nations climate report that is meant to serve as the first “global stocktake” under the 2015 Paris agreement - with one climate scientist describing it as “a moment of truth”. This is a process that is meant to track countries’ efforts - or not - to meet the goals of the treaty and will form the basis of negotiations at the next UN climate summit, Cop28, to be held in the petro-state of Dubai in November. Not exactly the ideal venue, you might think, but what the hell - maybe it is an attempt at irony.
Originally due to come out this week, the 47-page report was actually published hurriedly in draft form last week on September 8, so might possibly not be the finished version. However, the chasm between climate action and scientific warnings is laid bare in the UN stocktake - saying that governments are failing to cut greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to meet the goals of the Paris agreement and to stave off climate disaster. Indeed, in quite blunt language for the UN, the rise in global emissions must be halted within two years to “avoid the worst” - though what that means exactly is a matter of conjecture. Mass species extinction? Mass migration of human populations? The end of human civilisation?
Anyhow, as it stands, countries will still belch out about 22 billion tonnes more carbon dioxide in 2030 than the climate can cope with, if global warming - as laid out in the Paris agreement - is to be limited to 1.5°C or under by that date. To give you some idea of the scale of the problem, the 22 billion tonnes that needs to be eliminated is roughly equivalent to the combined emissions of the top five polluters today: China, USA, India, Russia and Japan. Therefore, the report recommends “phasing out all unabated fossil fuels” (even if it is something buried in a short paragraph midway through the summary, suggesting it is a last-minute addition after exhausting talks).
Achieving net zero, states the report, “requires systems transformations across all sectors and contexts” - which includes “scaling up renewable energy”, “ending deforestation” and “implementing both supply and demand side measures”. Furthermore, the UN says, “it is essential to unlock and redeploy trillions of dollars to meet global investment needs” - which by anyone’s definition can only mean the reengineering of the entire global economic system. At the very least, it requires the immediate stopping of all fossil fuel investments and the vast subsidies that are throwing fuel on the climate fire.
Thus global finance for climate action reached about $803 billion annually for 2019-20, the report states, but this is less than a fifth of the estimated $4 trillion annual investment in clean energy technology needed to limit temperature rises even to 2°C. By contrast, about $892 billion a year was invested in fossil fuels, and a further annual $450 billion was on average provided as subsidies for fossil fuels in 2019-20. Urgewald, a German-based campaign group that tracks global fossil fuel finance, found that the World Bank supplied about $3.7 billion in “trade finance” in 2022 that was likely to have ended up funding oil and gas developments.
Of course, the question of “phasing out” fossil fuels has been at the heart of endless UN global climate debates. For years, oil-producing countries have prevented the UN from adopting language that would explicitly require a phasing out of fossil fuels. Last year, an effort to get that included in the outcome of Cop27 in Egypt failed. Up until now, hardly surprisingly, the United Arab Emirates has resisted using any language on phasing out fossil fuel emissions in any official communications on Cop28. When asked recently by journalists, the Cop28 president-designate and oil executive, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, would refer only to “phasing down” fossil fuels. So the inclusion of “phasing out” in the draft report could prove to be controversial.
The report does not set out in detail which countries are falling behind, nor does it contain specific recommendations directed at particular countries or regions - hence ultimately it is still a diplomatic document that does not want to ruffle too many feathers. If we are all at fault, then nobody is at fault.
When it comes to global temperatures, the reality is bleak. In the colourful words of UN secretary-general António Guterres, “the dog days of summer are not just barking: they are biting” - warning that “climate breakdown has begun”.1 Unless you are an idiot this cannot be denied.
When you look at the graphs, we do not see a plateau - let alone a steep decline. As the UN and other data shows, in order to have any chance of reaching the 1.5°C target you have to immediately stop all emissions of CO2 - which is obviously impossible, as that is effectively asking all the countries of the world to cease production. In other words, 1.5°C will be reached - quite feasible it could be the year after next. Of course, the very fact that emissions continue to rise indicates that there is a great danger of 1.5°C above preindustrial levels becoming the new norm - with the UN having to issue regular warnings about the world hitting 1.6, 1.7. 1.8 … Indeed, some climate experts have warned that the world is on track for up to 2.6°C temperature rise by 2100, if not higher.
Most of us know, after all we are all being forced to become self-taught climatologists, you have a built-in momentum - things like the melting of the icesheets just continues for another 100 years or so. It is like the proverbial oil tanker: it takes a long time to turn it around. Climate systems are extremely complex - humans do not have the ability to switch them on or off as we please. As Engels reminded us, we do not rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, even if some self-described Marxists stubbornly hang on to that pernicious notion. Clearly then, though it is not pleasing to have to say this, things are going to get worse and worse. What we have is a lot of rhetoric, spiced with a little action - but totally inadequate given what is required.
In fact, we have a system guaranteed to make things worse: a system predicated on ‘growth’ - not meeting needs - and attempting to realise surplus value to make a profit. This precisely brings us to the whole question of development. Both the Indian and Chinese governments, for example, are committed to the rhetoric of growth. Of course, what they actually mean by that is selling some sort of dream to the masses - but the actual driver is the unquenchable thirst for surplus value. The consequence is the subordination of those countries to the extraction of surplus value by US imperialism and others at the top of the global pecking order. Contrary to how it is often put across, development is not a ladder where you eventually reach the top rung and somehow achieve a state of equality - almost the opposite, if anything. To get to a higher position you have to kick someone down to a lower rung!
Anyway, the UN report tells us that we have the technology and “sufficient cost-effective opportunities” to address the 2030 emissions gap - “yet significant challenges, including access to and availability of support, remain in harnessing these opportunities at the required pace and scale”. We see that perfectly in Tory Britain. Recently, Rishi Sunak announced 100-plus new North Sea oil and gas drilling licences as part of a “maxing out” policy when it comes to the extraction of fossil fuels, while bizarrely claiming that the move was “entirely consistent with our plan to get to net zero”, as domestic supplies are apparently more efficient than shipping gas and oil from other countries - nonsense on stilts, of course. Yet only weeks later when they auctioned the latest tranche of offshore wind farms, they got no takers - nobody was interested, potentially creating a disastrous shortfall in future renewable energy.
Recklessly, the government ignored repeated warnings that offshore schemes were no longer economically viable under the current system, as the price for energy offered to developers had not taken account of rampant inflation in their costs. Rather, they insisted on setting a maximum price of £44 per megawatt hour based on 2012 prices, similar to the price offered in the previous auction - with predictable results. It almost looks like sabotage.
In many ways, this is a fitting description of where Britain is going at the moment, when it comes to the climate crisis - Rishi Sunak telling the G20 summit in India that he will resist the “hair shirt” policies that involve “giving everything up and your bills going up”. Following the Uxbridge by-election and the row over the expansion of London’s Ulez scheme, there appears to be a growing sentiment against “green crap” in sections of the Tory Party - even if the centrist or liberal wing believes that abandoning green credentials would spell political disaster with younger voters.
At least with Boris Johnson you got the rhetoric of net zero and climate action, after stupidly telling LBC Radio in 2013 that wind farms “failed to pull the skin off a rice pudding”. Well, when a sinner repents, heaven rejoices - though it is doubtful whether that applies to Boris. When you get a good windy day in Britain - preferably not a storm - half or more of the country’s electricity needs are catered for by these power sources.2
The UK has over 11,000 wind turbines with a total installed capacity of 28 gigawatts - the sixth largest capacity of any country. But the disastrous auction could hamper efforts to massively expand that capacity, which would be criminal, given that Britain is the best location for wind power in Europe and one of the best in the world.