A recent UN report on disasters concluded that climate change has meant the number of ‘natural’ disasters was double in the last 20 years what it was in the 20 years before that. Around the world there were nearly 7,500 of these officially-recognised disasters, and they killed more than 1.2 million people, affected 4 billion and had a direct cost of nearly $3 trillion. One single event – the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami – killed more than 220,000 people. Flooding disasters have doubled, storms have become more destructive and the UN predicts heatwaves will increasingly add to the disaster toll in coming years.
The 26th annual UN climate talks should have been starting next week in Glasgow, but the pandemic means we have to wait a whole year before the world’s gaze is turned on world leaders and their multiple failures to act quickly enough.
Signs of hope in climate action
There continues to be plenty of gloomy news and the global response continues to be too slow, but there are also interesting signs of change around the world, including in the most unexpected places.
Poland is a country which gets three-quarters of its electricity from coal and has been notorious for blocking action on climate change at the EU level. I was at the UN climate talks in Warsaw in 2013 when the Polish government held a parallel summit on how coal is part of the future. I was at the same talks in Katowice in 2018 and visited the official stand in the conference venue made from coal!
But things are changing in a remarkable way. Poland’s largest electricity company, state-controlled PGE, last week said it needs to get out of coal in the next 18 months or it will go bust. Sadly, it doesn’t actually want to stop coal being burnt but it does want to pass the liability of its coal assets to the Polish Government.
Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter yet ANZ last week became the last of the four big national banks to say it was getting out of funding coal mining, something unthinkable only a few years ago.
South Korea has just joined China and Japan in pledging to be net zero by 2050, meaning more than half the world’s nations are now committed to this or similar goals.
In the US, polling shows that Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan is popular with voters and he has said he would also commit the US to be net zero by 2050. Figures that have come out in the campaign show that Texas, the heart of the US oil industry, has 254,000 jobs in renewables compared to only 162,000 in oil and gas.
Closer to home, the renewables industry has overtaken fossil fuels, with the latest figures for jobs in renewables in Scotland at 23,100 and a recent estimate putting jobs in oil and gas at 23,000. And that’s despite the current arguments raging over offshore wind fabrication work for the BiFab yards.
It not yet enough or fast enough, but in these grim times it is important to celebrate the rays of hope which might just mean we get a grip on climate change.
A version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Tuesday 3 November 2020