12 years to save the world? No, the real climate deadline is the end of 2020

Decisions the world’s politicians make about carbon emissions over the next 18 months are critical for the survival of life on earth, climate scientists say—and Asia could be where the climate fight is won or lost.

a coal-fired power plant 1
A coal-fired power plant. While coal is in decline globally, Asia is driving new plant development. Rennett Stowe, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Humanity has 12 years to dramatically rein in carbon emissions to prevent the worst effects of climate change, as outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sobering report last year.

But the real climate deadline is just 18 months from now.

That is the assessment made by a number of climate scientists and world leaders, who point to 2020 as the year that major policy changes are needed to bring in much deeper carbon cuts.

At the current emissions trajectory—which saw a new record for carbon-dioxide discharge made in 2018—global temperatures are set to increase by 3 degrees Celsius by 2100. This will mean a catastrophic increase in sea level, extreme weather, floods, drought, and crop failure, with Southeast Asia expected to be the hardest hit by the effects of climate change.

The climate math is brutally clear: While the world can’t be healed within the next few years, it may be fatally wounded by negligence until 2020.

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director emeritus, Potsdam Climate Institute

The Prince of Wales, the United Kingdom’s second in line to the throne, said at a reception for Commonwealth Foreign Ministers earlier this month, that the next 18 months would “decide our ability to keep climate change to survivable levels and to restore nature to the equilibrium we need for our survival.”

Prince Charles’ comments came just over a year after scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder and now director emeritus of the Potsdam Climate Institute, proclaimed: “The climate math is brutally clear: While the world can’t be healed within the next few years, it may be fatally wounded by negligence until 2020.”

While the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015 set out plans for countries to cut carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, part of the deal was for countries to significantly harden their carbon reduction targets by the end of 2020.

2020 is the year by which global emissions must peak if the world stands a chance of limiting global warming to the Paris target of 1.5 degrees Celsius—a temperature increase deemed by scientists to be relatively safe—according to the IPCC report.

So much hangs on the outcome of key climate meetings coming up over the next 18 months, including a special climate summit called by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres to be held on Sept 23, the COP25 (or the 25th Conference of the Parties) meeting in Chile in December 2019, and COP26 in the UK at the end of 2020.

Without Asia’s support, climate targets will be missed

Observers worry that progress made at the climate talks may be stymied by the United States’ planned withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2020—which will surely go ahead if climate denier president Donald Trump wins the next election in November 2020—and opposition to the IPCC climate report being discussed at UN talks by the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

But even if the US commits to the Paris Agreement and blocks to the IPCC report are removed, the fight against climate change will be won or lost in Asia.

Last year’s emissions record was a result of increased coal burning—the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions—in India and China, which offset declines in emissions in Europe and the US.

China has led the world in renewable energy adoption, but the world’s biggest carbon emitter has a plan to dramatically increase production of coal to fuel its economy that could compromise global decarbonisation goals.

India, the world’s third biggest and fastest growing carbon emitter, also has plans to increase the deployment of renewable energy, but coal-based energy demand to expand the world’s fastest growing economy will also push global carbon targets to the limit.

Meanwhile in Southeast Asia, the only region in the world where coal is gaining share in the energy mix, Indonesia plans to double coal use by 2025 and Vietnam aims to increase the fossil fuel’s share of the energy market from 33 per cent to 56 per cent by 2030.

“The depressing thing is that Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] is so business-as-usual [on its energy journey],” said Athena Ronquillo-Ballesteros, Asia climate finance director of Groswald Family Fund, in a recent interview with Eco-Business.

For this region—which has been less influenced by the rise of climate movement Extinction Rebellion and Swedish school striker Greta Thunberg—to meet global climate goals, a strong business case for a transition to clean energy is needed to unlock policy and regulatory hurdles, said Ronquillo-Ballesteros, whose fund is focused on driving the region’s shift away from fossil fuels.

One hopeful piece of news from Southeast Asia came a fortnight ago, when Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo said that the country—the largest energy consumer in Southeast Asia and one of the world’s biggest users of coal—would “start reducing the use of coal,” despite having 39 coal-fired plants under construction and 68 more in the pipeline. 

Jokowi, who has just won a second term in office following a general election in May, shows how quickly politics in Asia can change the world’s climate story. 

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