Turning words into actions at COP27
Mario SaabView bio
Just as geographically Egypt sits at a major trade crossroads, so COP27 locates us at a major economic, cultural and political crossroad. Do we keep discussing where we hope to end up in relation to decarbonisation, or do we make tangible, evidence-based plans to ensure we can adapt to and mitigate climate change?
Decarbonisation is not achieved simply by switching all energy supplies to renewables as quickly as possible. It also requires a concerted effort to capture emissions already in the atmosphere. As it is, we are locked into a trajectory of at least two degrees average global temperature rise by 2050, and with that comes major destabilisation of global weather systems, climate drivers, the ocean circulation, polar ice, ecosystems and so forth.
In short, the world is going to be a less safe, less predictable and less pleasant place for most of us. So, we need to plan now how we will manage in that scenario. That means shifting the thinking from being focused on 2050 as the end goal, to having plans for 2030, 2060 and the end of the century and beyond. Currently, in most policy and planning, anything beyond 2050 is almost off the radar. There needs to be a more coherent approach with 5-year plans, 10-year plans, 50-year plans, even century plans.
We urgently need governments to lead, and the finance sector to become an enabler through green finance products that support adaptation, mitigation and sequestration.
In terms of removing emissions, the quickest wins will come from nature-based approaches including both terrestrial sequestration through vegetation and ocean-based sequestration through restoring coral reefs, restoring seaweed beds – even algae sequester carbon.
We also need to consider the biodiversity in our oceans.
I was encouraged and inspired at a recent event held by the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, where a presentation was given that highlighted the role of the global whale population. These enormous mammals are carbon capture and storage behemoths!
Globally, the population sequesters around 37 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. Just one whale sequesters an average of 33 tonnes of CO2 in its body when it sinks to the bottom of the ocean at the end of its life.
This shows how caring for the web of life in our oceans including sustainable management of fishing rates does help in reducing the risks and impacts of climate change.
Unfortunately, with the scale of the global problem, ecosystem-based sequestration will not be enough. We will need human solutions – but too often we see the carbon capture and storage narrative focusing on technologies that do not exist yet, or those that are experimental but do not produce any useful output as a result of capturing carbon.
We need circular and connected thinking to be applied to technology innovation – how can we turn CO2 into something useful and in doing so also abate the need for a high emissions product or material? This is an area where government leadership, private sector investment and engineering inventiveness can work together.
There is one more very important step that needs to be taken. Just as COP27 is a global gathering of leaders working together to try and solve a shared problem, we need to ensure that the actions and responses to the emissions challenge are also equitable.
Currently, high emission countries are able to purchase offsets from nations with low levels of development, meaning there are also low levels of emissions. This kind of trading allows wealthy, high-emission countries to continue to pollute the shared stratosphere while the low-emission countries are also facing the challenge of ensuring basic needs of their people are met in a sustainable way.
Again, we need inventiveness to help resolve this challenge by creating technologies and solutions that are effective and affordable for people in the majority world. These same technologies can also – ideally – help the high-emitting and wealthy countries to effectively decarbonise.
It comes back to what we often call the triple bottom line – benefits for people, planet and profit. All three need to be achieved for a solution to result in meaningful, effective and lasting positive change.