A warning from inside the Arctic Circle Siberia’s heatwave highlights the need for radical action on climate
THE EDITORIAL BOARD
Siberia is home to some of the coldest inhabited places in the world. But a few days ago, the small Russian town of Verkhoyansk recorded a temperature of 38C. It was a record high temperature locally and, probably, for the Arctic Circle. What made the heatwave all the more alarming, however, is that it is not a one-off. While the world’s attention has been on the health and economic crisis wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, much of Siberia has been experiencing unusual heat. In May, surface temperatures in parts of the vast Russian region were up to 10C above average. The immediate consequences have been all too visible: accelerated melting of ice and snow, early outbreaks of large wildfires and a thawing permafrost. What happens in Siberia matters to the rest of the world; the temperatures, together with above-average heat elsewhere, ensured that May 2020 tied with 2016 as the warmest May on record. There is an additional, alarming, effect from the Siberian heatwave: the thawing of the permafrost releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, promising to accelerate global warming. Governments have taken unprecedented measures to deal with the Covid-19 emergency. As they begin to build back their economies they should take the opportunity for equally radical action on climate change. If there is one thing the pandemic has shown it is the danger of ignoring expert warnings. Emergencies can and do happen. The drop in carbon dioxide emissions brought about by the economic lockdowns is likely to prove shortlived. Nor is it enough to meet the central aim of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate: to keep global warming well below 2C.
Combating climate change is a global effort but the evidence that any concerted action is being taken is slim. There are concerns that the world’s two largest polluters, China and the US, will both fail to curb their emissions. In the US, President Donald Trump’s administration is preparing to withdraw formally from the Paris accord in November.
More worryingly, China is already showing signs that the need to stimulate its economy is proving greater than a desire to use more low-carbon energy sources. The country is approving plans for new coal power plant capacity at the fastest rate since 2015. Europe is proving the exception. Here, the European Commission has put climate programmes at the heart of its €1.85tn economic recovery effort. The problem is that a “green” Europe alone will not be enough to combat climate change. Just over 9 per cent of world emissions come from Europe, compared with China’s share of more than 24 per cent.
Given what is at stake, the size of the challenge should not be a deterrent for action. There is some scope for optimism. The scale of the energy transition taking place among the oil majors — BP being the latest example — is testament to the progress being made at the sharp end of the climate debate. There is also evidence that investing in climate change does not have to come at the expense of sustainable economic growth. A recent analysis conducted by the International Energy Agency together with the IMF envisages a broad shift to clean power and new investments in areas such as electric vehicles. The plan, which would cost $1tn annually, would create 9m jobs a year and help to cut annual greenhouse gas emissions by 4.5bn tonnes once implemented. Policymakers should not ignore the warnings, or the opportunity. Decisions made today will determine not just the future of Siberia but that of the rest of the planet.