Climate change in 2019: Five to watch

By Richard Black, ECIU Director

Skynews Greggs Vegan Sausage Roll 4537598

On a roll for 2019. Image: Sean Cocktail

Yes, I know that predictions are always hard... especially about the future. But what’s life without challenges?

Fresh back at the desk after some badly-needed and gorgeously-spent down time, invigorated by my first Greggs' vegan sausage roll (not bad, since you ask) and the day’s third big mug of tea, and inspired by my colleague Jonny Marshall’s preview of 2019 in energy, here are my five top tips for things to look out for in climate change as the year develops.

1. Impacts, impacts, impacts

2018 was an astonishingly weird year for weather. The European heatwave scorched fields from Ireland to Estonia, Japan sweltered, Paradise burned, and even at the turn of the year Queensland smouldered when it should have been raining.

Science has already shown that climate change made the European heatwave at least twice as likely – and during 2019 we can expect researchers to publish a slew of further studies looking for the fingerprints of climate change on last year’s other weather events. In some cases they may show that rising emissions come with a high price-tag, including the shocking consequences of North American wildfires and the damage done to agricultural crops across Europe.

We enter 2019, meanwhile, with the Pacific Ocean flirting with El Niño conditions. If it goes all the way, the year will almost certainly emerge as the warmest on record; even if conditions stay as they are, the record may still be passed. That’ll make an interesting backdrop to the 2019 UN climate summit, held as it will be (albeit, for logistical reasons, at the start of 2020) in Chile, a nation both south of the Equator and among those most closely touched by El Niño events.

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Computer models suggest the Pacific Ocean will either enter El Niño conditions or at least stay close for the rest of the year. Source: Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Further south there are indications of something interesting happening in the Antarctic, where sea ice, after decades of slow growth, appears to have entered a period of contraction.

2. Les gilets vertes

While media attention has focussed on the gilets jaunes, the hi-viz-clad protestors against Emmanuel Macron’s tax-and-tax-break policies, less noted but probably more impactful in the long run were the two million French signatures – yes, you read it right, two million – on a petition demanding that the government be sued in pursuit of swifter action on climate change.

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Dried-out reservoirs - one result of the climate change-linked 2018 heatwave. Image: Tim Day

Although fuel prices were the lightning rod for the gilets jaunes, their protest isn’t really about energy policies. As everywhere, fuel poverty is overwhelmingly down to poverty. The climate change gilets vertes, by contrast, are focussing on climate and (by extension) energy policies.

Modern French administrations have to pay attention to climate change, if only because the epoch’s most significant climate agreement bears the capital city’s name. And if Macron looks to the east, he'll see Dutch lawmakers having to step up climate action after a legal victory there by campaigners.

In western Europe, those governments not already run by populists are generally struggling to appeal. The UK’s Conservatives have realised that there are votes in them green hills. Holland proves there's damaging legal action in the brown.

With the searing heatwave in recent memory, we can therefore expect 2019 to see continuing public demand for, and thus political interest in, accelerating the clean energy transition.

Oh – and Australia’s Federal Election, probably in May, looks like being quite spicy on the climate change and energy front too.

3. Emissions to rise, but low-carbon structural change to continue

It’s now clear, to the great disappointment of climate scientists and environmental campaigners, that the plateau in global carbon emissions seen earlier in the decade has ended, and emissions are now ticking upwards again. With many of the world’s biggest economies set to post significant growth in 2019, there’s no reason to expect anything else than a further rise in emissions across the year.

Emissions won’t grow as fast as the global economy, showing that decoupling continues. And the reasons are clear for anyone who chooses to look. Renewables undercutting fossil fuelled electricity generation on cost in most countries… investment in renewable generation outstripping fossil fuel spend in the developing world, now, as well as the developed… energy waste being cut in giant economies such as China… electric car uptake passing the 3 million mark… etc etc

So, 2019 is set to continue the paradoxical situation in which fossil fuel use (and thus carbon emissions) rise even as the rationale for using them recedes. Inertia, innit?

The wild card in all this could be a major US-instigated trade war. Rationality indicates that won’t happen. Then again, rationality didn’t indicate Donald Trump.

4. UK to finish burning the 'coal dividend'...

In recent years the UK has been an undoubted world leader in the pace of emission reductions. And in decoupling: in the decade since Parliament passed the Climate Change Act, the UK economy has grown by 12% while emissions fell by 30%. And for those of you who would assume this was down to the exporting of emissions – well, it wasn’t.

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The UK is among G20 nations outperforming (red) its Paris Agreement commitment (pink) in terms of cutting carbon intensity. Source: pwc Low-Carbon Economy Index

However… emission cuts lag investment decisions, which in turn lag policy. The majority of UK emission cuts seen in recent years lie in the electricity sector. They are due to falling consumption (some of it stimulated by energy efficiency policies) and the replacement of coal generation by renewables and gas.

Last year, coal accounted for just 5% of UK electricity generation. Whether it falls even further this year or rises a smidgeon depends on essentially unpredictable factors including the relative prices of gas and coal and the weather. Yes, new wind farms will start generating too and are bound to replace a share of both coal and gas in the mix – but we’ll see only about half as much new wind power capacity coming online this year (1 gigawatt) as last.

Meanwhile new policies to cut emissions in transport, agriculture, home heating and other areas – which ought, according to the official advisors the Committee on Climate Change to have been in place several years ago – remain conspicuous by their absence.

All of which means that 2019 could be the year when the UK’s recent and spectacular emission-cutting progress hits pause.

5. ...but set a net zero target anyway

Despite the growing lacuna in short-term policymaking, the UK is highly likely to set, during 2019, a target of ending its net contribution to climate change before mid-century.

October’s special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made clear that governments need to bring global carbon dioxide emissions to net zero around 2050, alongside large cuts in other greenhouse gases, in order to stand any chance of meeting their Paris Agreement pledge - to attempt to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

If the world needs to hit net zero emissions... well then, so, logically, must individual countries, and on a similar timescale – a little sooner for the prosperous, a smidgeon later for the rest. Some – Sweden, Norway, Iceland, France, Costa Rica – have already pledged to do so, with varying degrees of commitment – and at least one, Bhutan, is already there.

Mike Yukhtenko Net Zero

Net Zero. Image: Mike Yukhtenko

The Government recently asked the Committee on Climate Change to analyse what target is appropriate for the UK, and how it can best get to net zero. Even now the Committee’s boffins are running their rulers over the several recent reports that say it can be done – those from the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering and Vivid Economics that concentrate on the UK specifically, and that from the Energy Transitions Commission which concluded that decarbonising the so-called ‘harder-to-decarbonise’ sectors wouldn't actually be that hard.

The Committee will publish its advice in the Spring. Then Government, and eventually Parliament, must decide how to go forward.

How to reach net zero is an important question. But the bigger one, from a political point of view, is this: as a self-professed climate change leader, could the UK government really contemplate committing to do less than science says is necessary?