Year end view from the Economist!

The Economist December 27TH 2021
The Climate Issue Our latest climate-change analysis
This year has delivered a rollicking ride for climate news. It kicked off with President Joe Biden bringing the United States back into the Paris agreement and launching a new plan to green America and closed with an action-packed COP26 UN climate summit that achieved both a lot and far too little. In between these two bookends came stark warnings about future levels of warming, an onslaught of devastating extreme weather events from fires to floods, soaring carbon markets, a load of net-zero commitments from nations, regions and the private sector, and a global energy crunch. Rather than a blow-by-blow chronological summary of the year, here is a non-exhaustive but indicative list of key numbers to remember the year by. 

49.6°C: the record temperature in Lytton, in British Columbia, Canada, on June 29th—hotter than the average for a summer’s day in Dubai. A wildfire promptly burned the village to the ground, making Lytton the tragic poster child of an unprecedented heatwave that affected the entire Pacific Northwest and sent a region better versed in fog scrambling to open cooling centres. Climate modellers declared the heatwave so unusual that it challenged their understanding of the physics of heatwaves, and concluded that it would not have taken place without human greenhouse-gas emissions. The heatwave was by no means the only extreme weather event of the year. Among others, devastating floods in northern Europe also showed that rich countries are not immune to the blunt end of climate impacts

90%: the proportion of global GDP now covered by a net-zero emissions target, corresponding to 88% of emissions and 85% of global population. Net-zero targets have become all the rage. They should be both celebrated and taken with a fistful of salt. The “net” is key: countries, cities, regions and companies promise to eliminate the bulk of their emissions while leaving themselves room to offset what they can not disappear. Strictly speaking, by the middle of the century these offsets will need to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and tuck them away somewhere for all of eternity, or near enough. There are broadly two ways of doing this: through photosynthesis (in which case the plants must be jealously protected) or technology, which leads neatly on to: 

1,200: the estimated tonnes of carbon dioxide that have been extracted from the atmosphere by Orca, the world’s largest carbon-sucking machine, since it was switched on in early September. Orca was built to remove 4,000 tonnes of CO2 each year. The gas is fizzed into water and pumped into Iceland’s volcanic bedrock where it crystallises. Climate models suggest billions of tonnes of CO2-removal will be necessary in the second half of the century to meet the Paris targets. What is less clear is who will pay

4.9% (+/-0.8): the projected growth in emissions from burning fossil fuels in 2021, relative to 2020. After a 5.4% drop in 2019, caused by global lockdowns, emissions rebounded. 

45%: the emissions cut required of Shell by a Dutch court. In a landmark ruling, a judge said the oil giant’s activities violated its “unwritten standard of care” under Dutch law and asked that it reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030 relative to 2019 levels. This was the first time the duty-of-care argument was applied to a private company. It is also notable that the judge’s ruling made Shell responsible for both its own emissions and those of its suppliers. Shell has appealed the decision.

3: the number of “green” members elected to Exxon’s board at a shareholder meeting in late May. For the higher-ups at the oil company, the bête noire of climate activists, this was apparently a bitter pill to swallow

€88.88: the price of putting a tonne of CO2 in the atmosphere in Europe on December 8th. This marked the first time that the elusive $100-a-tonne mark, which many believe is needed to incentivise net-zero pledges, was reached. It was a fleeting landmark. As December rolled on, prices dropped slightly. 

611%: roughly the increase in European gas prices in 2021. The end of the year was marked by a staggering global energy crunch, with Europe (including Britain) particularly badly hit. The leap in prices revealed that the world remains poorly prepared for a transition to an energy system that is primarily powered by renewable sources.

17bn-20bn: the gap, in tonnes of CO2, between the emissions reductions that are built into COP26 climate pledges for the next decade (relative to 2010 levels) and the reductions needed to give the world a good chance of avoiding more than 1.5°C of global warming. This discrepancy highlights the shortcomings of global climate negotiations. Put bluntly: the primary goal of governments headed to COP26 was to find ways of slashing emissions enough by 2030, to put the Paris goals within reach, and on that front they (mostly) failed. The Glasgow Climate Pact requires them to try again, harder, by COP27 in November 2022

2.4°C: the amount of warming above pre-industrial temperatures that is projected for 2021 if governments deliver on all the promises they made at COP26.

1.09°C: the global mean temperature for 2021, relative to the 1850-1900 average, based on data from January to September. 

Thanks for reading this Christmas edition of the Climate Issue, and thank you for your readership and feedback throughout this year. As ever, we would love to hear your thoughts on our climate coverage, including what you would like to read more or less of. Please email me at Happy holidays!