A “code red for humanity”. Those were the words that dominated headlines last year as the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first chapter of its landmark report, sounding alarm bells that the internationally agreed threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius of global heating was “perilously close”.
Its publication came amidst a summer of wildfires, which tore through landscapes in California, parts of Greece, Turkey, Israel, Cyprus, Italy and Siberia. The effects were devastating; in the US alone the Dixie Fire burned 963,309 acres before it was contained. Globally, the fires were responsible for the release of 6450 megatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.
One author of the IPCC report, professor Ed Hawkins from the University of Reading, said the consequences of global heating – like wildfires and melting ice caps – will only “continue to get worse”. "It is a statement of fact, we cannot be any more certain; it is unequivocal and indisputable that humans are warming the planet,” he added.
In November 2021 world leaders gathered in Glasgow for the Cop26 climate summit, which saw India commit to reaching net zero by 2070 – less than 100 years after it started using fossil fuels. Additionally, China and the US, the world’s largest emitters of planet-heating carbon emissions, made a joint declaration that they will work together to create “concrete” solutions to the climate crisis.
There were also wide sweeping pledges to phase out coal use, end the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and reduce methane emissions. While these were significant steps, independent analysis by research group Climate Action Tracker found that the targets are “inconsistent with net zero goals”, and that even if met, greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will still be twice as high as necessary for the 1.5C threshold.
However 2021 did bring some climate wins. In May, a Dutch court ruled that Shell must slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, while PepsiCo dedicated seven million acres of land to regenerative agriculture – a move which could eliminate three million tonnes of emissions.
Elsewhere, renewables are booming. Record high numbers of renewable energy technologies – mostly in the form of wind turbines and solar panels – were installed in 2021, with the capacity to generate around 290 gigawatts of energy. According to the International Energy Agency, if the industry continues to grow at current levels, renewable electricity capacity could exceed that of fossil fuels and nuclear energy combined by 2026.
But as we look forward to 2022, it’s clear that ambitious net zero targets pose a myriad of difficulties. Experts from sectors across the board, including the food and fashion industries, paint a picture of a problem that is multifaceted, involves hundreds of players and spans the globe.
While some have proposed inventive new policies, others are calling for a complete overhaul of existing systems. The Independent spoke to a range of experts about today’s most pressing issues, and how we can tackle them in the coming year.
Made the promises, now deliver
World leaders made several climate commitments at Cop26; 105 countries promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030, 40 countries vowed to phase out coal power by 2040 and more than 30 nations and 11 car manufacturers pledged that all new cars and vans will be zero emissions by 2040.
Additionally, a pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent was signed by 105 governments including six of the biggest emitters of the gas – US, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan.
Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace, says that while the targets demonstrate “something approaching a shared agenda for full decarbonisation”, we will only benefit once we see a physical decline in emissions. “It’s important not to put too much faith in promises until we see real action to keep them,” he says.
As it stands, emissions across the world are not declining. While a 2021 report by the Global Carbon Project showed that emissions fell by 5.4 per cent in 2020, it estimated that they would grow by 4.9 per cent as demand for coal, oil and gas rebounded with the economy following the first year of the pandemic.
This bounceback has already been seen in the US, where greenhouse gas emissions rose by 6.2 per cent in 2021, according to independent research institute Rhodium Group. The findings, published earlier this month, note that while emissions are still 5 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, “progress in reducing emissions was reversed in 2021…putting the US even further off track from achieving its 2030 climate targets”.
“In addition to more renewables, we need more energy efficient heating and housing, less coal, less gas and less oil being produced and burned,” Parr adds. “That’s the difficult bit – not developing new, clean technologies, which everyone supports and have no, or few, downsides – but shrinking the old, dirty industries which those new technologies replace.”
Can we stop burning fossil fuels?
While the overall consensus is that the world must move beyond its reliance on fossil fuels, it’s undeniable that we are heavily reliant on carbon. This poses the question of whether it’s possible to stop burning fossil fuels, and the experts are divided.
Dr Friederike Otto, a climatologist at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London, says the only way to stop the climate crisis from getting worse is to stop burning fossil fuels globally. “Therefore we need to enable all countries to do that, to transition to an economy that’s not based on burning fossil fuels because otherwise the temperatures will continue to rise,” Otto says.
But others believe that a full transition to net zero before global temperatures reach the 1.5C limit may prove impossible. Myles Allen, the director of Oxford University’s Net Zero initiative, says “we need to stop climate change before the world stops using fossil fuels”.
“We can’t afford to wait and hope that the world will stop using fossil fuels in time, it won’t. It’s perhaps possible for a rich country like the UK, which is very well endowed with renewable resources, but even that would require very substantial changes,” he says. “For the whole world, it’s out of the question.”
Allen is backing a “Carbon Takeback” policy, which he hopes governments will adopt in 2022. This would force any company extracting fossil fuels from the ground to capture the CO2 they produce and remove it from the atmosphere, by pushing it deep underground.
“The conversation we need to have is about the responsibility of fossil fuel suppliers to take care of the climate impact of the product they sell,” Allen says. “If we can establish the principle that anyone pulling up fossil fuels must dispose of the CO2, it puts the responsibility on the fossil fuel producer. Therefore, if you’re buying fossil fuels anywhere in the world, the climate impact has already been taken care of.”
The fragility of our food
The UN reports that our food systems are responsible for 34 per cent of global emissions. Dan Saladino, author of Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them, says our reliance on fossil fuels at every point of the food supply chain – from the production of fertiliser to farming of crops, growing feed for livestock and the transportation of goods – has “created a future full of risks”.
This risk was highlighted in September 2021 when two fertiliser plants in the north of England were forced to stop operations because of a steep increase in energy prices. “We understood how heavily dependent we are on fossil fuels, not just for fertiliser but because of the knock-on effects that had on other forms of food production,” Saladino says.
The fragility of our food systems and their dependency on fossil fuels is intrinsically linked with an increasing loss of biodiversity. While 200,000 different kinds of wheat are available in seed banks across the world – each adapted to different climates and with varying nutrient densities – British farmers likely grow from a list containing fewer than 10.
By limiting the variety of our foods, we’ve created “high-yielding crops that need huge amounts of input to deliver, and we’ve lost that adaptability”, Saladino says. “It works very well, only if every single part of the process is designed and can be predicted. You throw in climate change and more erratic weather patterns, whether it’s excess rainfall or drought, and that system is extremely fragile.”
Looking ahead to 2022, the food industry needs to see a “top down, bottom up” approach involving governments, business and consumers, says Patrick Holden, the founder of the Sustainable Food Trust. “We need a polluter pays principle so that people who cause damage are financially responsible for their actions, but the government won’t act if there’s no public pressure.”
While there’s no doubt that public attitudes are shifting, there are concerns that consumers might not have the full picture of how our food systems impact the environment. One example is the meat industry.
Last October, a study by the University of Oxford revealed that people in the UK are eating, on average per day, 13.7g less red meat but 3.7g more white meat than a decade ago. But while the majority of livestock emissions do indeed come from red meat, chicken has its own environmental footprint.
This week, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that Cargill, a major supplier of animal feed in Britain, is still purchasing soybeans from farms built on deforested land. The multi-billion dollar business previously pledged to clean up its supply chains after a 2020 investigation found that its chicken feed is sold to major retailers such as Tesco, Asda, Nando's and McDonalds.
“This is why we need to be better informed about the way our current farming systems work, and why we, as consumers, need to learn more about the story of our food,” Holden says.
Time for fashion to take responsibility
Last year, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority published its Green Claims Code. From January 2022, brands must not make vague or misleading sustainability claims, be able to substantiate all claims with robust and current evidence, and not omit or hide any important information.
Separately, more retailers embraced the second-hand clothing market. Vestiaire Collective partnered with Alexander McQueen on a new initiative that calls on trusted clients to sell their unworn pieces, while both Net-a-Porter and Harvey Nicols now offer customers a space to sell their pre-loved garments.
But the fashion industry’s footprint is large, and there is still much to be done. According to research by McKinsey, the fashion world is responsible for 40 million tonnes of textile waste per year. In its State of Fashion 2022 report, industry experts highlighted closed-loop recycling – the process of collecting old clothing and recycling it into new products – as a “critical opportunity” to reduce waste.
Action is already being taken by Swedish textile recycling company Renewcell, which has partnered with H&M, Levi’s and Beyond Retro’s parent company Bank & Vogue, with plans to recycle up to 60,000 tonnes of textiles this year.
Fast fashion cycles are moving quicker than ever, with companies like Boohoo raking in record profits in 2021. There have been attempts to slow the cycle, namely in the form of popular rental fashion services like By Rotation and My Wardrobe HQ, but even these have their drawbacks.
As one 2021 study, published in the scientific journal Environmental Research, concluded that renting your wardrobe has a higher climate impact than buying new clothes, due to hidden environmental costs in delivery and packaging.
Additionally, many brands are still not taking responsibility for their entire supply chains”, Céline Semaan, the founder of Slow Factory, says. One area where she hopes to see improvement is a move away from suppliers with links to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, which scientists have predicted is on “the brink of an environmental collapse”.
“Fashion brands must take responsibility for their entire supply chain, all the way down to the raw materials, and the people involved. Over 100 fashion brands are linked to its deforestation,” she said. “In 2022 we expect a response, and a significant bold action to restore the Amazon Rainforest.”
The time to act is now
Last year, experts at the University of Exeter and the Met Office produced the UK’s third national Climate Change Risk Assessment. Richard Betts, who led the technical report, says “one of the biggest things we learned in 2021 is how badly prepared the UK is for climate change”.
A key finding of the assessment was that the gap between the level of risk posed by the climate crisis and adaptive measures taken by the government has widened, which means that we are “underprepared, even for the things that are already happening”, Betts adds.
Specifically, the likelihood of extremely high summer temperatures has increased by 15 per cent in recent years, while 4,000 heat-related deaths have been recorded in England since 2018. These are thought to be associated with high indoor temperatures in homes, care homes and hospitals.
Additionally, the assessment noted that changes to the climate had increased the risk of landslides in old coal tips. “There are 2000 of these tips in Wales, and nearly 300 have been identified as “high risk”. Dealing with those has now become more urgent because heavy rainfall has already increased in South Wales,” Betts says.
Positively, in December 2021, the government updated its Building Regulations to require newly built homes, care homes and schools to mitigate overheating risks. The new regulations will take effect from June 2022 onwards.
To fly or not to fly?
Ahead of Cop26, the Office for National Statistics found that 75 per cent of UK adults are worried about the impact of climate change. But when fossil fuels and industry are responsible for 89 per cent of global emissions, as reported by the IPCC, it’s difficult to know whether changing our personal behaviours can make any positive impact.
The experts are also somewhat divided. In 2020, Oxfam reported that the richest 10 per cent of the world – mostly people in the US and the EU – accounted for more than 50 per cent of all emissions between 1990 and 2015, more than double the carbon footprint of the poorest half of humanity.
At the time, Tim Gore, head of climate policy at the charity, urged governments in the west to curb their citizens’ emissions by implementing bans on SUVs and frequent flying.
Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist at the University of Bath, says “cutting down car use and flying, using renewable energy, and cutting down on red meat and dairy” are all effective behaviours. “If everyone did these things it would make a big difference. In fact, at least most of the changes needed to get to net zero require behaviour change,” Whitmarsh adds.
But Dr Otto is less convinced that personal changes can offset the impact of the world’s biggest polluters. Instead, she is encouraging individuals to lobby their local MPs by drawing up petitions, taking part in protests and voting.
“It’s not about individual consumption,” she adds. “That’s what the big companies want us to think, because then they can continue doing what they do – selling fossil fuels – and then we feel guilty for burning them.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about whether you fly on holidays because that will not solve the problem. What we need is a global infrastructure and global economic systems that are not built on burning fossil fuels.”
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