And we now know that all that carbon released from burning fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions from farming and other practices is trapping heat inside the earth’s atmosphere and altering the global climate.
One degree doesn’t sound like much, but we are already seeing the effects in terms of sea level rise and more extreme weather events. Nineteen of the hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. It’s only 2021.
Last year, 55 million people were forced to move because of extreme weather events. The climate crisis is very much a reality for those people and not a distant future scenario.
Children born today would be facing an unimaginable future in their lifetime of food and water shortages, climate-related conflict, displacement of millions of people, and large parts of the Earth being uninhabitable and lost forever to sea level rise.
Some 30,000 delegates representing 197 countries assembled in Glasgow for COP26 to get agreement on how to divert us away from that awful future. After two weeks of intense negotiations we are now on track for 2.4C of warming by the end of the century if every country acts on their climate commitments.
I got a lump in my throat watching former President of Ireland Mary Robinson become emotional during an interview on Sky News at her frustration and fear of the delaying tactics of fossil-fuelled countries like Saudi Arabia and Australia during the COP26 negotiations.
Robinson, who epitomises goodness and decency, welled up on live TV because we are literally fighting for “a safe future” and so many negotiators were still acting to protect their national interests and maintain business as usual, rather than taking momentous action to avert a global catastrophe.
Her summation of the Glasgow Climate Pact was that “COP26 has made some progress, but nowhere near enough to avoid climate disaster. While millions around the world are already in crisis, not enough leaders were in crisis mode. People will see this as a historically shameful dereliction of duty”.
There were many impassioned pleas over the two weeks. EU negotiator, Frans Timmerman, showed a picture of his one-year-old grandson Kees, reminded people that his grandson will be 31 years old in 2050, and told politicians: “If we succeed, he’ll be living in a world that’s liveable. He’ll be living in an economy that is clean, with air that is clean, at peace with his environment. If we fail, and I mean fail now within the next couple of years, he will fight with other human beings for water and food. That’s the stark reality we face. So 1.5 degrees is about avoiding a future for our children and grandchildren that is unlivable”
At 95, David Attenborough, asked in a passionate and energetic speech: “Is this how our story is due to end - a tale of the smartest species doomed by that all too human characteristic of failing to see the bigger picture in pursuit of short-term goals?”
That is why the climate activists were marching and protesting and shouting “blah blah blah” at politicians, because if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels in the next eight years we are in big trouble.
As Robinson said, “you can’t negotiate with science”, and plans to mine and exploit new reserves of fossil fuels are not compatible with a safe future.
There was a lot of chat and promises about ‘Net Zero by 2050’ at COP26. The concept relies on removing a lot of carbon from the atmosphere by direct air carbon capture technologies. These technologies don’t exist at any significant scale yet.
Another approach, Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Sequestration (BECCS), involves growing plants which remove carbon dioxide as they grow and are then burned in power stations to produce electricity. The carbon dioxide released during burning is captured and stored underground. The result is carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere.
It is a controversial approach, as dedicating so much land to this method could have major negative environmental consequences and has never been done at scale before.
Instead of relying on technologies and large-scale geo-engineering projects of the future, a safer approach is to stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible. Rather than spending billions on subsidies for the fossil fuel industries, governments could support the roll-out of renewable energy technologies.
But the fossil fuel industry is not willing to put its hands up, admit its polluting ways, and stop the further degradation of nature. Despite all the scientific evidence telling us about the effect of fossil fuels on our planet, 503 people from the fossil fuel industry attended COP to advocate for their polluting businesses. There were more fossil fuel representatives at COP than from any single country, and more than the combined total of the eight delegations from the countries worst affected by climate change in the past 20 years.
No wonder campaigners were raging outside. It is like letting tobacco industry lobbyists attend a public health conference and advocate for the continuation of smoking in the face of all the evidence that cigarettes kill.
Joan Baez once said the antidote to despair is action. Taking personal actions to reduce our carbon emissions while at the same time advocating for wider change with our politicians is our only hope.