A new report from Operation Noah - 'Bright Now' divestment campaign reviews the speed of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy – and argues that the Churches need to rapidly shift their investments to support this transition. A useful resource for anyone interested in where the Church invests its money, and who wants the Church to be the change it wishes to see in bringing about a brighter, cleaner future. 

What is the fuss about fossil fuels?

'At the UN climate talks in Paris in December 2015, world leaders committed to keep global temperature rises ‘well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels’ and ‘pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius’ to protect humanity from the worst impacts of climate change. We know that it will not be possible to meet these goals while continuing to extract and burn fossil fuels.'

The United Nations Climate Change Conference Paris 2015

Have you ever tried to get a roomful of dysfunctional teenagers to sit down together and draw up a set of rules to manage their club? If you can picture this, you will appreciate the sense of euphoria following the historic agreement in Paris. If agreement is possible for the climate, then it must be possible for the world finally to work together to solve other intractable problems such as disarmament, eradicating grinding poverty, eliminating exploitation and even finding a workable global economic model.

If, on the other hand, you have followed the cold objective calculations of climate scientists then you may well wonder whether there really is an adequate basis for the world to turn around. Can billions of us (many still needing to claw their way out of poverty) make the challenging adjustments to the way we satisfy our huge demand for energy? And can we cut our carbon emissions quickly enough?
For the first time, nearly all the nations have, as it were, sheathed their swords, and agreed to work peacefully against a common 'enemy'. I think that this is a bit like Christmas in the Great War when enemy soldiers reportedly fraternised. Those nations most in danger from climate change have at least been listened to. Hope has shifted from being pious to seeming practicable.
But in the cold light of day what have we, the people of this planet, actually achieved? Well, we have resolved to face the menace. If they are honest with us, Western leaders can offer little but 'blood, sweat and tears'. That is because many ecosystems are already seriously damaged and if the environment is to be saved the the more well-off (that means us) will have to accept increasingly simple life-styles.

The United States, China, India, Russia and Europe are on the same side in this struggle. As the writer to the Ephesian church observed, those who care about justice wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. In this context, that means unjust structures, entrenched infrastructure and our own society's addiction and aspiration to consumption and comfort.
At the Paris Summit the richer nations confirmed that they will provide assistance to poorer communities (although $100 billion per year by 2020 is not really a lot given the magnitude of the task). The commitments that countries have given to reduce their emissions will be reviewed in 2018 and progress will be checked in 2023 and then 5-yearly. Countries will be under peer-pressure to strengthen their plans every five years until the numbers add up to less than a 20C global temperature rise.
Amazingly for those who have campaigned for this, there was a wide acceptance in Paris that the expected temperature rise should really be limited to 1.50C above 'pre-industrial'. The present 10C is bad enough, as the people who have suffered in the recent floods know too well. The fears of smaller and less powerful nations, for whom a 20C rise will spell disaster, have been heeded. The IPCC is to produce a special report in 2018. It may be too late, but surely the churches should unite behind a 1.50C target, simply as a matter of justice for the poor.

Some eminent scientists are unimpressed by the Paris Agreement. Prof. James Hansen summed up COP21:: “It’s a fraud really, a fake. It’s just **** for them to say: 'We'll have a 20C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will continue to be burned.”

That is true, but it is not the whole story. The argument is won: global warming is anthropogenic. Many captains of industry (not least the insurance industry), although constrained by the bottom-line, understand the urgency. Across the globe, the internet allows the organisation of grass-roots petitions, marches and (more controversially) civil-disobedience.

Most politicians, however, are limited in what they can do by what their peoples will tolerate. In a democracy, the buck therefore stops with us to keep environmental issues at the fore-front of public debate and to help persuade everybody of the urgency – despite some media hostility and our entrenched (if often unconscious) consumerist culture.

The central problem is this. The voluntary commitments to cut emissions made by countries are simply not enough. They will not limit the mean global temperature rise to 20C (or, better, 1.50C).

The calculation is difficult. Some 'feedback mechanisms' are poorly understood and so are not included in IPCC calculations (for example, scientists do not yet know how much methane will be released from thawing tundra) and there is still considerable uncertainty about the precise relationship between the concentration of greenhouse gases and temperature rise. To make it more complicated, the size of the 'commitment' of a nation may depend on economic growth or support from more developed countries.
The World Resources Institute analysed a number of studies and concluded that the median expected temperature rise (based on 'commitments' so far) lies between 2.7 and 3.7 0C. That's a lot better than 'business as usual' but it is not nearly enough to prevent catastrophe for some communities. Undoubtedly, however, some nations will 'up' their commitments in the five-yearly reviews. Will it be enough?

Many nations have a mixed record when delivering on commitments. You might remember another moment of euphoria 10 years ago in Edinburgh when the G8 promised $50 billion to Make Poverty History. Much has indeed been achieved – but only $30 billion was forth-coming by the 2010 deadline and, with a few honourable exceptions such as the UK, the 0.7% GDP target has been missed.
Some analysts think that the central problem is this: The global economic system only works if there is growth – but unending growth (not to mention a world population of 9 billion souls) is incompatible with environmental sustainability. There is thus an inherent contradiction at the heart of the Paris Deal.

It is time for some reality checks:
(1) It isn't easy to calculate the carbon 'embedded' in net U.K. imports (see Prof. David MacKay's lucid book: 'Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air' (free to down-load on-line)) but by some reckonings it is enough to cancel out this Country's carbon reductions.
(2) Important though it is ethically and as an indication of intent, you and I reducing our carbon foot-print will have little real effect unless fossil fuels (especially coal) are taxed to cover the damage they cause to health and the wider environment. The huge subsidies that they enjoy must also be removed. But this raises a quandary: how to do this without causing the poor, especially in developing countries, to suffer most? Hopefully the newly established 'Paris Committee on Capacity-building' can help here.
(3) We would be sceptical if a smoker said that she would only reduce her use of cigarettes gradually because doctors will develop a cure for lung-cancer before she got it. Yet this is the argument that unproven carbon-capture technology and other 'geo-engineering' will help enable the world to achieve the target of a temperature rise of less than 20C by 2100,

The rich nations (notably the UK and the USA) have not admitted their historic liability and their continuing influence over much carbon release. They cannot do so, of course, because they might be sued for compensation. No doubt we will put more cuts on the table as a free-will contribution – but with many a backward glance at economic rivals and developing nations. Sadly, Mr Cameron returned from fine words abroad in Paris to the abandonment of many exemplary carbon reduction measures at home. Saint Augustine might have put it this way: 'Make me carbon-free . . . but not yet.'

Charles Jolly E&OE  January 2016

If you wish to read the full text of the Paris agreement, please go to: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09.pdf

Please click here for a copy of the EU Paris Summary



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