2 August 2018 (The Economist) – Earth is smouldering. From Seattle to Siberia this summer, flames have consumed swathes of the northern hemisphere. One of 18 wildfires sweeping through California, among the worst in the state’s history, is generating such heat that it created its own weather. Fires that raged through a coastal area near Athens last week killed 91 (see article). Elsewhere people are suffocating in the heat. Roughly 125 have died in Japan as the result of a heatwave that pushed temperatures in Tokyo above 40°C for the first time.

Such calamities, once considered freakish, are now commonplace. Scientists have long cautioned that, as the planet warms—it is roughly 1°C hotter today than before the industrial age’s first furnaces were lit—weather patterns will go berserk. An early analysis has found that this sweltering European summer would have been less than half as likely were it not for human-induced global warming.

Yet as the impact of climate change becomes more evident, so too does the scale of the challenge ahead. Three years after countries vowed in Paris to keep warming “well below” 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels, greenhouse-gas emissions are up again. So are investments in oil and gas. In 2017, for the first time in four years, demand for coal rose. Subsidies for renewables, such as wind and solar power, are dwindling in many places and investment has stalled; climate-friendly nuclear power is expensive and unpopular. It is tempting to think these are temporary setbacks and that mankind, with its instinct for self-preservation, will muddle through to a victory over global warming. In fact, it is losing the war.

Insufficient progress is not to say no progress at all. As solar panels, wind turbines and other low-carbon technologies become cheaper and more efficient, their use has surged. Last year the number of electric cars sold around the world passed 1m. In some sunny and blustery places renewable power now costs less than coal.

Public concern is picking up. A poll last year of 38 countries found that 61 percent of people see climate change as a big threat; only the terrorists of Islamic State inspired more fear. In the West campaigning investors talk of divesting from companies that make their living from coal and oil. Despite President Donald Trump’s decision to yank America out of the Paris deal, many American cities and states have reaffirmed their commitment to it. Even some of the sceptic-in-chief’s fellow Republicans appear less averse to tackling the problem (see article). In smog-shrouded China and India, citizens choking on fumes are prompting governments to rethink plans to rely heavily on coal to electrify their countries.

Screenshot from a Deutsche Welle documentary, 'The hellish coal fields of Jharia', showing Savitri Mahto, a young coal scavenger at the coal mine in the Jharia neighborhood of the Indian city of Dhanbad. There the 17-year-old toils away for hours every day in order to support her family. The toxic fumes are destroying Savitri's health, but she cannot afford to see a doctor. Photo: DW English

Optimists say that decarbonisation is within reach. Yet, even allowing for the familiar complexities of agreeing on and enforcing global targets, it is proving extraordinarily difficult.

One reason is soaring energy demand, especially in developing Asia. In 2006-16, as Asia’s emerging economies forged ahead, their energy consumption rose by 40 percent. The use of coal, easily the dirtiest fossil fuel, grew at an annual rate of 3.1 percent. Use of cleaner natural gas grew by 5.2 percent and of oil by 2.9 percent. Fossil fuels are easier to hook up to today’s grids than renewables that depend on the sun shining and the wind blowing. Even as green fund managers threaten to pull back from oil companies, state-owned behemoths in the Middle East and Russia see Asian demand as a compelling reason to invest.

The second reason is economic and political inertia. The more fossil fuels a country consumes, the harder it is to wean itself off them. Powerful lobbies, and the voters who back them, entrench coal in the energy mix. Reshaping existing ways of doing things can take years. In 2017 Britain enjoyed its first coal-free day since igniting the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. Coal generates not merely 80% of India’s electricity, but also underpins the economies of some of its poorest states (see Briefing). Panjandrums in Delhi are not keen to countenance the end of coal, lest that cripple the banking system, which lent it too much money, and the railways, which depend on it. [more]

The world is losing the war against climate change

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