The implication of the graphs I showed in last week's article
is that action on climate change is urgent and will be painful. Two recent events, apparently unrelated, draw attention to the problem confronting us. First, the revelation in the Pandora Papers of the extent of kleptocracy across the world and the centrality of London to this. Second, the fragility of our energy systems as evidenced by the ability of Russian oligarchs to hold Europe hostage over gas.
Climate change is the consequence of misuse of the Earth's resources, driven by the twin motives of profit and competitive expansion of national wealth. The pain of climate change is felt especially keenly by the poor and disadvantaged of the world, and not only in poor countries; think, for example, of floods and wildfires in USA and Europe. The labour of the poor supports the lifestyles of the rich. For us in the UK, with climate change damage compounded by the self-inflicted isolationism of Brexit, I anticipate that taxation and the cost of living will rise; in a just society, the greatest burden must be borne by those most able to do so and all political parties need to confront this.
Climate change matters
The most frequent comments I have received after speaking about climate change have been, 'Is it really that serious?' and 'There's nothing I can do that will make a difference'. The first comment implies 'It's not going to affect me in my lifetime, is it?' Well, the looming problems with cost of energy give the lie to that and, in these articles, I have explained that as a society we shall in future need to pay the real price for our food and energy, and that involves including the ecological cost.
As for the second, if we do not act as individuals the battle is lost and we condemn our families to a descent into a future of inevitable financial, climatic and social decline. The time to act is now. Each one of us is a microcosm of our society and, with every community and every organisation and nation, we all have our roles to play.
The problems for COP26
There have already been 25 Conferences of the Parties, and the fact that the graphs I showed you last week look the way they do tells you that agreement has been hard to reach and generally ineffective. This time, however, the delegates should know that action is required urgently, and that failure will have fearful consequences.
I anticipate two themes will dominate COP26. One will be national responses to the need to eliminate burning of fossil fuel and the other will be financing of measures to mitigate the present and anticipated damage from climate change. What I am urging on my readers in terms of reduction of our own carbon footprints is expected also of nations and the organisations over which they have control or influence, in terms of legal commitments. This will provoke argument; the examples of Germany and Russia illustrate this.
Germany has done very well in increasing the role of renewables, which now provide about 45% of its electricity but it still has a large coal industry which powers much of its industry and provides 26% of its electricity. It has also, very unwisely in my view, set its face against nuclear. It will have big problems in finding enough energy for its population's and for its industries' needs from wind, solar and hydro, and is heavily reliant on gas, much of which comes from Russia.
Russia, in contrast, has large quantities of gas and other fossil fuels on which Europe has become dependent. It also, as a cold northern country, may see climate warming as an advantage to its agricultural sector. It is in Russia's economic interest to sell gas and in Germany's (and many other countries') interest to buy it, but it is the world's interest to leave it underground.
As we have seen with COVID-19 vaccines, national self-interest usually trumps calls for altruistic support of the less fortunate. But for those nations, especially low-lying islands, those affected by temperatures that threaten their ability to grow crops, and those whose economy is dominated by sale of fossil fuels, national self-interest may mean the difference between survival and collapse.
This is the conundrum faced by COP26. At its most basic, it is the conflict between the rich and the poor; while all look to improve their standards of life, the rich (countries and people) hold all the cards. The solution must come from compromises and agreement on transfer of adequate funding and support to poorer regions and poorer people for mitigation. But there is little room for compromise on cessation of fossil fuel combustion, and this means both reduction of our demand for energy overall and a switch to renewables backed by nuclear. I hope I am wrong, but planting more trees and capturing carbon other ways, though essential as a mitigation, is unlikely to make much difference without the first two necessities.
From James Watt and Adam Smith's contributions to the industrial revolution and its associated capitalism, our exploitation of whole families in our coal mines, Paraffin Young's discovery of cancer-causing shale oil, and widespread urban air pollution from burning coal and oil, through to the profligate exploitation of our oil reserves and the Piper Alpha disaster, there has been a much darker side to Scotland's history than most of us have been brought up to believe.
As a small country and as part of the UK, we have much to answer for and a large debt to repay to society. I believe the Scottish Government has appreciated this and is now taking advantage of our ample supply of wind and hydro. We have reduced our overall energy consumption by about 13% since 2015. In 2019, we generated 97% of our electricity, 32TWh, from renewables (a terawatt hour is a million, million Watt hours; I have used 250 watt hours or 0.25kWh writing this article on my laptop, in my case supplied by my solar panels).
While this national contribution to reducing use of fossil fuel both looks and is good, it is far from sufficient. Scotland's total energy consumption is roughly 160TWh per annum, of which 80TWh comprises heating for homes and industry, 40TWh for transport and 35TWh for electricity generation. Essentially, therefore, we will have to increase our renewable output by four to fivefold to provide for our current transport and heating needs. This explains why personal reduction of use of fossil fuel is so important for our survival.
While much of the improvement in Scotland has been attributable to wind and hydro, our progress on the much more predictable wave and tidal energy and on carbon capture and storage has had insufficient support from the time it became obvious that these resources had the potential to put us in a world-leading position. We have also been very poor at building well-insulated houses and at exploiting the relatively little sunshine we get. Encouragingly, Scottish Power has recently applied to produce green hydrogen by electrolysis of water in the Glasgow region and also to make hydrogen from natural gas, while capturing the CO2 emitted (see SR 29 September 2021
). I do hope that this initiative on hydrogen is not hindered by those who do not like windmills.
It must now be clear that our energy in the near future can only come from the wind, the sun and water, either by direct transformation into electrical energy or indirectly through electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen, and from heat-producing nuclear reactions to cover periods of low wind.
The world's problem
The UK, as an example of an advanced economy, used about 1,860TWh energy in 2019, or 31,000kWh per person. About 37% of this was renewable, a rising proportion which put us 11th in the world. Total world energy usage is estimated around 160,000TWh annually (21,700kWh pp) with the highest in the USA (88,000kWh pp) and the lowest in Africa (7,000kWh pp). China has a rapidly growing demand but a huge population so the amount per person is still below ours at about 28,000kWh. Its need for energy means it is dependent on imports of coal and oil, but it is now the world's fastest growing producer of renewable and nuclear energy (and exporter of solar panels). In 2019, coal provided about 58%, oil 19%, gas 8% and renewables/nuclear 15% of China's energy. Continuing substantial changes towards sustainability are very likely, given its command economy but it still requires coal.
India is the third highest energy consumer in the world (22,000kWh pp). Coal provides 46%, oil 30%, gas 6% and nuclear/renewables 7%. There are huge opportunities for the renewable sector to grow, especially from solar electricity in its vast transport sector. India is behind China in raising the living standards of much of the population, so development of cheap renewable power is providing opportunities for its entrepreneurs. In both these countries, the problem of air pollution from coal is as bad as it was in the UK in the 1950s and is providing a similar political incentive to decarbonise energy.
Among the greatest producers of fossil fuels, Russia is unique in having probably the highest reserves in the world of coal, oil and gas. Its own use of these is high (55,000kWh pp), but it also exports more than a third of the 7,863TWh it produces annually. This puts Russia, and the oligarchs who profit from it, with the other major oil exporters in a strong bargaining but weak moral position when discussing reductions in contributions to climate change. In an equitable world, some of these profits now fossilised in luxurious buildings round the rich world would have been used to ameliorate the damage caused by combustion around the poorer world including their own people. A similar charge can, of course, be made against large multinational companies and their shareholders based in USA and Europe, though here (at least post-Trump) the likelihood of effective action is higher.
Final words pre-COP
These are the big players: USA, Europe, China, India and Russia. What they decide will determine the future of all the other countries, many of which are even more seriously threatened by climate change than the big five. I genuinely believe that this is the last chance for binding commitments to be agreed. This is a moment in the planet's history when national self-interest must take second place to altruism, a concern for the greater good of all on the planet Earth. If Homo sapiens joins the list of threatened species, and there is absolutely no biological reason to suppose that we are immune to this threat, those who survive longest will bear the burden of uncontrolled migration and conflict in their struggle to preserve civilisation.
For each one of us, there is a clear message. Nothing will happen if we personally do nothing. Whether it is getting rid of your fossil-fuelled car, insulating your house, turning down your heating, eating less meat, planting a tree, avoiding air travel, installing solar panels, or any of the many small things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint and prepare for the problems ahead, please don't delay. Do what you can and spread the word. We are destroying our habitat and must all now help to rebuild it. In the words of John Donne, a poet who himself changed his life around for the better:
No man is an island, entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
For Part 1 of 'Climate change:
a final word before COP26', Click here
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own