Global warming , and in particular climate change, its key impact, emerged as an international policy issue in the late 1980s, even though the problem had been recognised in scientific circles as far back as the 1950s. It was also established early that the effects on the world’s climate were linked to the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the lower atmosphere.
But it is only in the past 5 years or so that its been confirmed that the planet is warming more rapidly; that human-induced emissions are exclusively the problem; and that the significant and recent increase in extreme weather events around the world is now directly attributable to changing global climate patterns.
So global warming is no longer an issue for the distant future, and if it continues unconstrained, could lead to regionally characteristic and highly destructive impacts within the next 2-3 decades.
These will include an increase in the frequency and severity of heat- stress events, droughts, wildfires, cyclones and rain squalls. But as discussed below, high priority is now also being given to the widespread and permanent alterations occurring to the world’s oceans that were not well understood until recently.
The current position
By the start of 2017, the average global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was 403.5 ppm, 45% higher than in pre-industrial times. Greenhouse gas emissions elevated the average global atmospheric temperature by 1.10C over the same period, but the immediate concern is that, while 17 of the past 18 years have been the hottest recorded, the last 3-years up to January 2018 were exceptional.
Although not well recognised, the world’s oceans have absorbed 90% of the additional heat from the greenhouse effect. As a result, their average height increased by 14cm over the last century, with almost half of the rise occurring over the past 25 years. And the rate continues to accelerate, in part due to melting of the land and sea ice in the Arctic Circle
The warmer water is changing the oceans’ chemistry, by both increasing its acidity and reducing its oxygen levels. Each has significant implications for many types of marine life.
The global response so far
Preventing the expected impacts will not be an easy task. 11.5 billion tonnes of fossil fuels were consumed globally in 2016 and released 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. This rate of net emissions appears likely to continue each year well into the 2020s, and fossil fuels are expected to remain in the global energy mix well past 2040.
The most significant recent step to address the threat was the ratification of the 2016 Paris Agreement on Climate Change by 177 of its Member States. Each lodged a voluntary carbon reduction commitment and a strategy for achieving it by 2030.
Assessments since then have established however, that they are totally inadequate to make a useful reduction to the current level of carbon emissions by 2030. In fact, by 2030, carbon emissions will have peaked in only 57 countries that collectively represent 60% of the world’s emissions.
On the other hand, investors are scaling up the development of renewable energy technologies that will progressively replace coal, oil and gas.
For example, the move towards wind and solar generation is strong in many countries; sophisticated battery technology is emerging that is increasingly applicable to high energy demand systems; and a new generation of electric vehicles is emerging that is expected to cause substantial change in the car and truck industries now reliant on petrol and diesel.
International business is also making clear progress in its response to the climate change threats of concern to them, while internationally agreed protocols are appearing to allow for a structured and transparent disclosure of their exposures.
One of the most influential is the approach released in 2017 by the Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosure (TCFD). This outlined how best to conduct scenario analyses to characterize the expected transition, physical and regulatory risks; from either a firm’s exposure to financial loss from extreme weather events; or from a failure to reduce their carbon emissions if they are in industry sectors with regulatory control over the emissions levels.
Other firms are using voluntary reporting systems to disclose their position. Global programs such as the CDP, which currently has 5600 companies and 533 cities reporting annually, publish international assessments of the performance of each participant that are taken into account by major investment funds.
The Middle Way assists its clients to:
- Conduct scenario analyses to identify their climate risks and opportunities in order to enhance organisational resilience
- Develop performance targets for emission reduction or risk mitigation programs that are based on contemporary science
- Report publicly on the performance of their climate related activities
- Facilitate business forums considering the technical or policy issues
- Keep abreast of key changes occurring in the science of climate change and the policy and regulatory settings across Australia