It’s as if the Moon had showed us its dark side. Or as though the space between continents had shrunk. Such is the extent of the transformation undergone by Earth’s atmosphere. Sadly, the latest such transformation passed unnoticed – and it’s real.
That’s how The Economist described what we know as “climate change” in a preview of the event held in Glasgow, Scotland – COP26. Everything began in the mid-19th century, in the first half of the industrial era: the perfect example for the way history, technology and climate intertwine and affect each other over time. It was then that the first fossil-fuel industrial engines were engineered. Except that the smoke they produced, filling the chests of business owners and inventors with pride, was toxic. And it particularly affected the future generations, since carbon dioxide (CO2) in its composition was primarily responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions modern scientists would identify. The Economist also provides a few statistical data: until the early 20th century, the level of CO2 reported in the Earth’s atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm). In 1910, it climbed to 300 ppm. Today, CO2 levels have hit 412 ppm and continue to rise.
COP stands for “Conference of Parties” – a meeting of heads of state and government who’ve taken an interest in climate change. The interesting part is the number: this is the 26th such meeting, organized by the United Nations. Like previous editions, this year’s conference saw warnings being issued over the urgency of remedial measures. “This is not a time for words, but a time for action”, said Queen Elisabeth of Great Britain, born at a time when the air was still clean and people were still oblivious to the notion of “ppm”. By continuing to burn fossil fuels, “the world is digging its own grave”, UN Secretary General António Guterres also said. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the host of the meeting in Glasgow, said that “the world is one minute to midnight”.
Talking about catastrophic scenarios, such as the ones suggested by the abovementioned statements, did not however bring about effective action. Targets promised by governments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions were more often than not ignored. Just like the “ppm”, the number of climate conferences hosted by the UN is constantly growing. Yet pundits warn against a subtle change of attitude at the level of COP26. The number of voices challenging the scientific basis of the effects of climate change is going down. People who stall for time no longer challenge the facts, probably lacking the means and running out of ideas as to how to deal with the harsh reality.
The balancing act a century later
And the harsh reality is that the effect of the CO2 build-up in our atmosphere had a crucial contribution to the climatic changes we’ve noticed in recent years. The most dramatic of these is “global warming”, something which entails, among other things, modifications in natural habitats, extreme weather phenomena, the melting of polar ice caps or the rise in ocean levels. The stake of every COP is to determine governments and large corporations to abandon their CO2-emitting industries, so that the average temperature on Earth should not exceed the preindustrial era reference level by more than 1.5 Centigrade. Something which is a lot easier said than done. Merely realizing what needs to be done doesn’t take care of the problem. Here we can notice another silent progress of apparently failed conferences of previous years. More and more lawmakers acknowledge the fact that the world is not aligned to the same point in history. Europe has moved past the industrial era and is taking major, clear-cut steps to curb its CO2 emissions. Asia, on the other hand, is at the apex of the century of coal, oil and gas-based consumption, and is having trouble dialing it down to a slower pace. If we were to estimate the amount of CO2 that was historically produced by each continent, we would notice that starting 1750, despite all the recently introduced measures, Europe (including Russia) contributed 525 billion tons, ranking first, followed by Asia with an aggregate 608 billion tons, and North America with 470 tons. Hence the impression of solidarity that COP26 participants want to get across more than in previous conferences.
There are different sides to this quintessentially ecological problem. Politics prevails in Europe and America. In Asia, economy comes first. The Americans didn’t pick another “climate change denialist” such as former president Donald Trump as their representative in the climate conference. Nor has his successor been consistent in his attitude. For instance, over 40 countries made a pledge in Glasgow to eliminate their coal-based energy output in the near future. The United States was however not on the list, although one might have expected as much. In this respect, Joe Biden’s position seems to be much closer to the Trump administration rather than Barack Obama, who introduced measures restricting mining activities.
In China, however, the industry is largely dependent on fossil fuels. Chinese large infrastructure projects, for instance, which hold millions of jobs in the balance, rely heavily on cementworks, which in turn employ a pollutant piece of technology. As one contemporary author, Anselm Jappe, would say, if the cement industry were a country, then it would rank third in the world in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, after China and the USA. For China, a country accounting for half of Asia’s total CO2 output, this issue has serious economic implications.
Romania - ecology without ecologists
In this contemporary whirlpool, there’s little Romania can say or do. If ever this country had a chance to be at the top of the CO2 emission list, that was a long time ago, when the economy was being steered by communist central authorities and the country’s steelworks were burning metal around the clock. Romania’s mines started attracting heat ever since the ‘90s, but not necessarily due to their pollution, but due to their economic inefficiency in a market economy. So, when president Iohannis said in Glasgow that Romania “has one of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the European Union”, he was right. Yet Romania’s positive rating in this respect is rather circumstantial, not the result of a serious agenda. I got the opportunity to travel to Munich, Germany, where I was shocked by the density of bike traffic in the city center, as well as by the green protests staged during the few days of my stay there. Here, I could notice an active interest in protecting the environment, an idea capable of mobilizing both civilian and political support. In Romania, as political theorist Cristian Preda said, even the ecological parties created at the start of the “period of transition” are long gone.
It’s clear that COP26 didn’t need to remind us that, when it comes to combating climate change, mankind is going in circles. Figures show that, since the 1992 climate conference held in Rio de Janeiro, an event as “historic” as the one in Glasgow this year or in Paris in 2015, when world leaders decided to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the share of energy produced by solar panels and wind turbines rose from zero to 3% of the total output. The share of nuclear energy went down from over 5% to 4%. And the share of hydroelectric power remained constant, standing at some 6%. Otherwise, energy continues to be produced at industrial-era standards, coal alone accounting for 37% of the world’s total energy output. These figures will likely come as a shock to future generations.
On the other hand, we are growing increasingly aware about the seriousness of our current predicament. As a consequence, we are getting more information about climate change and have become more responsible. Naturally, we cannot undo the past. And yet amidst all the bad, we’ve learned to appreciate the good as well, a result of our evolution that involved, among other things, going through the industrial era. And now we can make better decisions. Already some banks have shown reluctance to finance polluting businesses, such as coal extractions. Technologies have been developed to help store carbon dioxide, one of them using basalt, the rock most of Iceland’s soil is made of. Such technologies are currently prohibitively expensive, but the costs of carbon dioxide emissions are also soaring, as companies grow more watchful. Researchers claim there are other, easier ways of keeping in check the emission of other greenhouse gases (such as methane, currently used in the natural gas industry, a byproduct of cattle breeding processes or land fill emissions) rather than traditional methods of collecting carbon dioxide. Moreover, the share of green energy has good chances of increasing, some specialists claiming it could reach 30% in twenty years’ time. A lot depends on how fast societies are willing to take consistent action that would eventually yield concrete results in an attempt at averting a global-scale ecological disaster. The entire planet must fall in synch eventually, willingly or not.