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Sensemaker: Warming by numbers

Sensemaker: Warming by numbers

What just happened

Long stories short

  • UK police said an explosion in a car outside a hospital in Liverpool, killing a passenger, was a terrorist incident. 
  • An anti-corruption party founded by two Harvard graduates a few weeks ago emerged as the likely winner of parliamentary elections in Bulgaria. 
  • A complaint against Fok Hing Gin, a Hong Kong gin brand, has been upheld in the UK as likely to cause “serious or widespread offence”.

Warming by numbers

Is 1.5 still alive after Cop? The short answer is yes. As a practical possibility given current policies and pledges, the idea that global warming can be kept to 1.5 degrees C over pre-industrial levels is now in intensive care or on life support, depending on your preferred critical care analogy. As a slogan and aspiration it lives on, and that matters.

Alok Sharma wept over the Indo-Chinese coal ambush. Pacific island nations were furious and there’s a strong sense of opportunities missed. But there are reasons to hope (see below).

By degrees (Celsius):

1.1 – current average temperatures above pre-industrial norms

2.7 – extent of likely warming based on current policies

2.4 – extent of likely warming if countries stick to newly-updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs) at least to 2030

1.8-1.9 – possible peak warming if countries stick to all their net zero targets to mid-century and beyond, according to Johan Rockström of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact and Research

– 0.1 – potential cooling impact of US-led methane-cutting alliance and an accelerated global coal phaseout, combined

– 0.2 – potential cooling impact of India’s 2070 Net Zero pledge combined with its interim targets for renewables and decarbonisation of the power sector

Reasons to hope

The ratchet. The fact that next year’s Cop will be as important as this year’s in terms of requiring countries to ratchet up their carbon-cutting ambitions is a serious achievement, easily underplayed because it’s bureaucratic. The gap between new NDCs has shrunk from five years to one. Countries have agreed to focus on climate five times more often. This is progress.

China. China said it was ready to tear the whole Cop down if the ambition to “phase out” coal wasn’t diluted to “phase down”. But it had already signed a meaningful bilateral pact with the US in which it aims to hit peak coal before 2030, and it agreed to the word “coal” appearing in the final communiqué for the first time. This too is progress.

India. India joined the coal ambush, but this didn’t mean it tore up its earlier pledges on renewables and Net Zero. They stay, with measurable impact (see above).

Methane. Cutting methane emissions is a low-hanging fruit because the main sources (oil and gas companies) are easily monitored. The US-led deal could cut global emissions by 30 per cent even though Russia, China and India did not sign up.

Article 6. Talks ground on throughout Cop on how to implement this key chapter of the Paris Agreement on harmonising carbon markets and tradeable offsets. They produced a deal. It’s not perfect; Brazil keeps millions of carbon credits from the past that it arguably doesn’t deserve. But this creates a framework for trillions in private finance to start flowing to countries with carbon sinks that have to be preserved and grown. 

Reasons to fear

That ambush. Saturday’s last-minute gun-to-head demand by India and China gives them (and other big coal countries like Australia and Indonesia) wiggle room to go on mining and burning the most carbon-intensive fuel on earth as long as they want.

NDCs and net zero pledges. Like everything else about the Cop process, they remain non-binding. 

1.5 degrees is already too much, and 2 is a disaster. 

The context. Seven years ago the IPCC considered 4 degrees of warming quite plausible. No longer. The UN Environment Programme, the International Energy Agency and Carbon Action Tracker all now agree that if Net Zero promises and 2030 commitments are kept, warming could be limited to 1.8 degrees and possibly as low as 1.5.

“1.5 degrees is not dead, but pledges do not reduce emissions; only national policies do, and they have to be implemented,” says Dr Friederike Otto of Imperial College. “So it’s a Schroedingers cat situation that it’s dead and alive and we’ll only know when we measure emissions in the coming years.”

Meanwhile the world moves on. Yesterday the Cop deal was the 34th story on the New York Times website. 

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

The Pentagon covered up a US airstrike in Syria that may have killed up to 60 civilians, the NYT reports. Officials defended the 2019 strike as legitimate on the basis that it killed at least 14 Isis militants, but the paper finds that no official investigation was carried out and the blast site was bulldozed before it could be properly examined. “Leadership just seemed so set on burying this. No-one wanted anything to do with it,” said Gene Tate, an official who says he was forced out of his job for trying to establish the truth. The attack on Baghuz in eastern Syria killed 80 people in all including women and children, some of whom the Pentagon now claims were armed.

New things technology, science, engineering

Deep diamonds
There are diamonds, and now there’s Davemaoite. It’s a form of calcium silicate formed under intense pressure deep beneath the earth’s crust and now identified for the first time in a sample a few millionths of a meter across, embedded within a diamond which formed 410 miles under Botswana. It’s named after a Chinese-American geophysicist called Ho-kwang (“Dave”) Mao because he’s the one who theorised that it should exist, but it’s only been positively identified with the help of high-energy x-rays and synchrotron x-ray diffraction, according to Space.com. So, a geological equivalent of Higgs Boson – theorised before being discovered. Isn’t science great?

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Austrian lockdown
Snow and skiing are coming, and with them traumatic memories for the Austrian government of a 2020-21 season cancelled by Covid, after the 2019-20 one turned out to be a giant superspreader for the world (thank you, Ischgl). So perhaps it’s no surprise that Vienna is taking a tough line on the non-vaccinated as Austria’s infection rate soars. They are condemned to lockdown, except for exercise, shopping and going to work. Only 63 per cent of Austrians are fully vaccinated compared with 80 per cent plus in Spain and Portugal. Two million out of an Austrian population of nine million will be affected and it’ll last for 10 days initially. The rest of central Europe, where Covid is newly out of control, will be watching closely.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Shape shifters
Birds in the Brazilian and Ecuadorian Amazon are getting smaller as their mass-to-wing-length ratio declines, and both trends may be a result of climate change. What’s interesting about a new study in Science Advances is that it concerns bird populations that have not been directly affected by deforestation over the past 40 years. They fly beneath the canopy in ostensibly unspoilt jungle. But a climate that is gradually drying out appears to be making them smaller and a climate that is gradually warming up appears to be lengthening their wings relative to their bodies, as a way of keeping cool. Another reason to remember that simply measuring the number of hectares logged and left alone isn’t enough when measuring the health of big forests. Tipping points can come sooner than expected.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Shell company
Subject to shareholder approval next month, Royal Dutch Shell is ditching the ‘Royal Dutch’ and moving much of its headquarters operation to London in what Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK’s business secretary, calls “a clear vote of confidence in the British economy”. The Dutch government, by contrast, calls it “an unwelcome surprise”. Shell’s CEO and CFO will move to London, as will the oil giant’s tax residency. Its stock will continue to be listed in Amsterdam and New York as well as London but there will only be one class of shares and the company will no longer be subject to a 15 per cent dividend withholding tax imposed in the Netherlands. The move follows a Dutch court ruling that Shell wasn’t doing enough to shrink its carbon footprint, and a demand from a group of investors last month that it be broken up. Unilever has also recently opted for London over a dual UK-Netherlands residency but the flow of business isn’t all one-way. Share trading worth billions of euros a day has shifted from London to Amsterdam since Brexit. 

The week ahead


15/11– House of Commons hears motion to dissolve new standards committee and endorse a report on conduct of former MP Owen Paterson; Boris Johnson delivers annual Mansion House speech; Voluntary real living wage announced by Sadiq Khan; Committee stage of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in House of Lords; Former Manchester City player Benjamin Mendy charged with rape and sexual assault, 16/11– Environment secretary George Eustice gives evidence to environment committee on labour shortages; labour market data and productivity estimate, 17/11 – Boris Johnson to give evidence to liaison committee; Vatican trial resumes for ten accused of financial crimes, including Cardinal Angelo Becciu; SSE results, 18/11– House of Lords debates outcome of Cop26, 19/11– BBC’s Children in Need fundraiser


15/11– International Atomic Energy Agency’s board meets in Vienna; Bipartisan bill-signing ceremony for President Biden’s Infrastructure Deal; Angela Merkel speaks on opening day of WHO Global Evidence-to-Policy Summit, 16/11–Vodafone interim results; Denmark local elections; Macklowe Collection auctioned at Sotheby’s; ECJ judgement on European Commission case against Hungary’s treatment of asylum speakers, 17/11–World Premature Birth day, 18/11– OECD quarterly national accounts of GDP growth; Prince of Wales visits Egypt with a focus on environment ahead of next years Cop in Cairo, 19/11–Adele releases new album, 30; 20/11 – International transgender day of awareness, 21/11– General election in Chile

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images