Phew! The dangers of global warming are receding. Admittedly that is not how most news sources are reporting the publication of the latest IPCC report this morning. But it is the logical conclusion of reading coverage of the issue over the past decade.
According to today’s IPCC report we now have 12 years to avert climate catastrophe. That might not sound long, but it means we are a good deal further away from doom that we were in 2007, when the WWF said we had five years to save the world. The doomsday clock hadn’t moved in 2011 when the International Energy Agency warned us that we had five years to start slashing carbon emissions or lose the chance forever. By last year it had shortened to three years, according to Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. But now it's right up at 12 years, presumably meaning that we can pretty twiddle our thumbs until 2030 – a whole 18 years after the WWF told us the world would come to an end if we didn’t slash carbon emissions.
And no, the world hasn’t made any progress in cutting emissions since the WWF sounded its warning siren. In 2007, according to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, human activities emitted 8503 million tonnes of carbon. By 2012, when we were supposed to have slashed carbon emissions or face imminent doom, emissions were up to 9673 million tonnes. In 2014 – the latest year for which the laboratory has produced figures, it was up to 9855 million tonnes.
It isn’t hard to spot the problem with issuing frightening-sounding deadlines. If the deadlines come and go, without us managing to lower emissions and yet still life goes on, it makes the people setting the deadlines look rather foolish. It is also somewhat counter-productive. Given the failure of the world to come to an end, it is tempting to say, just as we do when religious cults and other fantasists make doom-laden predictions which fail to come to pass: well, the whole thing must be a hoax. What is the point of listening any further?
If the IPCC and others want us to reduce carbon emissions – and there is every reason why we should want to do this, for reasons of averting climate change as well as localised pollution – it would pay them to adopt rather less hyperbole. The over-close deadlines prevent a measured response which might actually achieve something – and without ruining the global economy. One country which has cut carbon emissions over the past two decades (and without doing as Britain has done over that period by offshoring much of its energy-intensive heavy industry) is the US. How? By replacing much of its coal-fired electricity generation with plants which burn gas from fracking wells.
How ironic that it is the US which is seen as the international pariah of the climate change lobby while Germany, which is seen as a goody-goody nation, always willing to put its name to the latest treaty, has failed to cut its emissions. Germany’s problem is that it is trying to leap to a low-carbon economy in one go, via solar and wind power – while coal plants are maintained in order to make up the huge gap between the energy that green energy manages to produce and energy the country consumes.
The story of the world’s attempts to slash carbon emissions is a story of hares and tortoises – with the hares’ little legs worn out by trying to react to demands that they run ever faster.